Some law students spend their spring break relaxing on the beach, while others spend their spring break defending human rights, on the beach.

Over spring break, IHRC students Giovanni Avelar, Ryan Keever, Natalie Kirkish, Gloria Lee, Christian Mora-Castrellon, and Noemi Desguin traveled to Puerto Rico on a fact-finding mission as part of a Clinic project on human rights and the environment.  These students are in the process of writing an amicus curiae brief before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  The trip provided an opportunity for the students to perform first-hand factual investigation by attending meetings, conducting interviews, and visiting the location where the human rights violations occurred.

This project gained the attention of the Clinic on September 23, 2013, when a group of affected citizens from the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against the U.S. government.  Their petition alleges that the U.S. Navy violated the American Declaration on Human Rights when it used the island as a bombing and training facility and then subsequently failed to clean-up the contamination that they left behind.  The residents of Vieques suffer from a disproportionately high level of cancer and other illnesses, and attribute their health problems to the Navy’s contamination of the island.  Through the petition, Viequenses seek improved health care and compensatory damages to remediate the harm that they have suffered.

The International Human Rights Clinic is supporting this effort by filing an amicus curiae brief to assist the Commission in making a decision on the petition.  Clinic students are researching allegations that the Navy’s activities violated the petitioners’ right to health and a healthy environment, right to access to information, and right to access to justice.  In addition, their research also includes an evaluation of whether petitioners have met the Commission’s jurisdictional requirements by exhausting the remedies provided by domestic law.

The fieldwork in Puerto Rico contributed significantly to the development of the brief.  The Clinic visited the University of Puerto Rico, the island of Vieques, and the Puerto Rico Bar Association to conduct interviews with government officials, medical experts, community members, and petitioners.  Through these interviews, students were able to substantiate and verify facts, personally examine research methodology, and conceive of thematic arguments.  The students were able to experience the political and cultural factors that significantly impact the relationship between Puerto Ricans and the U.S. government to better understand how these factors have affected this case.

One prominent interviewee was Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association, who has dedicated her career to defending the human rights of underrepresented groups.  She framed the case of Vieques as both an environmental racism issue and a women’s rights issue.  Ms. Rivera eloquently summarized the case when she said “the Navy left but it left its bombs, it left but it left cancer, it left but it took the health and left the illnesses.”

Clinic students Noemi Desguin, Christian Mora-Castrellon, and Natalie Kirkish, and Clinic Director Francisco Rivera Juaristi, pictured with Puerto Rico Bar Association President Ana Irma Rivera Lassen.

Clinic students Noemi Desguin, Christian Mora-Castrellon, and Natalie Kirkish, and Clinic Director Francisco Rivera Juaristi, pictured with Puerto Rico Bar Association President Ana Irma Rivera Lassen.

The highlight of the trip was spending two days on the island of Vieques.  The Clinic had the opportunity to attend a meeting in a local church in the town square and listen to stories from the community about fighting for information from the government, fighting to remove the Navy from their island, and fighting cancer.  The students also toured the island, observing both the island’s famous beaches and bioluminescent bay as well as the artifacts left by the Navy – abandoned bunkers, fences, and signs on the beaches warning visitors of unexploded bombs.

The clinic students found the experience to be educational and enriching.  “This trip allowed us to develop critical interviewing and case strategy skills in the field,” said 3L Ryan Keever.

Keep an eye out for more updates on this case here on the IHRC blog.