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2004 | 60th Regular Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights (15 March - 23 April 2004)

The impact of toxic waste left by military forces on human rights in Vieques, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines

Dominicans for Justice and Peace, Dominican Leadership Conference and Pax Christi, in conjunction with Franciscans International, bring to the attention of the UN Commission on Human Rights the violation of economic, social and cultural rights of peoples whose lands have been used for decades by other governments as bombing practices for their military forces.

In some cases, the toxic residues of decades of military activity have literally poisoned the air, water, soil, animal and plant life. Also, it has destroyed the economies of the people and makes development a hopeless endeavor. Moreover, in such situations the fundamental rights of the children, women and men are violated every day by the toxic legacy left by the long term military activities. It denies them their right to a healthy life, a clean and sustainable environment as well as their right to development, and to physical and mental health forces.

Vieques, Puerto Rico

In the case of Vieques, Puerto Rico, for over 60 years, the residents of Vieques have lived down-wind from targets that were bombed up to 200 days a year. Virtually every conventional and non-conventional weapon used by the United States between 1940 and 2003, has been used in Vieques. This includes napalm, agent orange, depleted uranium (1999), white phosphorous, chemical weapons, and tons of high explosives and minute particles of a fiber-glass type substance, known as “chaff.” The evidence of the toxic effects of the Navy activities in Vieques is overwhelming.

Development was frozen in Vieques in the 1940s. Unemployment is about 50%; 60% of all families live below the official poverty line. Public service–in school, police, highway, and other public works–provides the largest number of jobs. There is no major and little minor industry. Many, if not a majority of, Vieques families either survive or supplement their income from fishing.

Today, Vieques has the highest cancer rate of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities. According to Puerto Rico’s Department of Health, the incidence of cancer is 27% higher there than in Puerto Rico’s other 77 municipalities, and has been for many years. The rate of cancer mortality is also significantly higher in Vieques than other municipalities. The incidence of heart disease, asthma and respiratory diseases, allergies and skin problems is also higher than in other municipalities, and the number and kinds of birth defects and bizarre genetic defects in animals is alarming.

Most of the toxics released by the American Navy in Vieques are persistent–that is, once placed in the environment, they stay there. Many of the most dangerous tend to bioaccumulate–that is, they are present in increasing doses as they move through the food chain from dust or water to plants that are consumed by lower forms of animals, such as crabs, that are consumed by higher forms of animals, such as fish, that are consumed by humans.

Far from satisfying the legitimate demands of the people of Vieques that all the expropriated land be returned so that they can decide how to use their land and resources to satisfy their own needs according to sustainable development models, the United States not only continues to hold title, but has also defined permissible future uses in a manner designed to avoid its responsibility to clean up the environmental disaster it has created.

On May 1, 2003, the United States Navy ended more than six decades of bombing on Puerto Rico’s island municipality of Vieques. The most urgent question is the extent to which the United States will remedy the public health disaster caused by the six decades of bombing.


In another case, for almost half a century (1947-1992) the Philippines played host to two of the most valuable military bases in the world, namely, Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base. These bases were located in four provinces of Central Luzon — Zambales, Pampanga, Bataan and Tarlac). With 185,709 combined acres of prime land and water reservations, these bases were heavily utilized for the U.S. military intervention in the Asian Region and the Middle East. This led to operations that generated tons of toxic and hazardous waste and contain sites that are highly contaminated. After their closure in 1992, damage to environment now increasingly bears witness to a case of over hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, most especially children who are affected and continuously threatened by the presence of toxic and hazardous waste in the former U.S. military bases.

Serious contamination in the bases is recognized in U.S. government documents, the clean-up cost of which is characterized as ”of Superfund proportions” if ever cleaned up under U.S. standards (U.S. General Accounting Office Report of 1992). The World Health Organization in its 1992 Mission Report confirmed these findings with the identification of areas in Subic with considerable pollution potential

Several contaminants that have been identified in the military bases belong to the category of persistent organic pollutants, which are subject for phase-out and elimination under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. They are highly toxic, persistent in the environment, do not degrade naturally, migrate long distances, are passed on to offspring, and enter the food chain. They constitute a grave threat to the people and the environment for even decades after the base closure.

The U.S. government’s evasion of responsibility impinges on the human rights of the affected Filipinos, the majority of whom live way below the poverty line. Struggling families of jobless, seasonal workers, or under employed fall victims to new burdens of paying for high cost of diagnosis, medicines, doctors’ fees and hospital expenses.

The U.S. government’s denial of responsibility seriously disregards Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration which established a foundation linking human rights and environmental protection, declaring that “People have fundamental rights to freedom, equality, and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of quality that provides a life of dignity and well-being of people.”

The U.S. violated international law regarding the protection of human health and safety e.g. UN World Charter for Nature, Principle 21 of the Stockholm Declaration, Principle 2 of the Rio Declaration, the Convention on Environmental Impact in a Transboundary Context, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 24, Section 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Dominicans for Justice and Peace, Dominican Leadership Conference and Pax Christi, in conjunction with Franciscans International, call upon the Human Rights Commission to:

1. Place the issue of the toxic legacy as a result of the American military activities in Vieques and in the Philippines on its agenda as a serious human rights issue;

2. Examine the impact of sixty years of military exercises in Vieques and fifty years in the Philippines on the right to health of their as well as their right to a clean and sustainable environment.

3. Furthermore, we urge the United States to:

a) Fully and adequately compensate all individual victims;

b) Guarantee citizen participation in the decisions about clean-up and future use of the lands of Vieques;

c) Remove all toxic wastes from the lands and areas of Vieques in the Philippines and institute a program of remediation adequate to make all but the irremediably contaminated areas, if any, fit for sustainable development;

d) Urge the government of the United States to provide medical assistance and compensation directly to the victims in the Philippines through their organization, the Alliance for Bases Clean-UP International;

d) After adequate clean-up, return all the expropriated lands to the people of Vieques, and compensate the government of Puerto Rico and the municipality of Vieques for any irremediably contaminated lands.

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