HILO — Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles was twice asked to leave council committee meetings Tuesday, after she abruptly announced she would not be voting because of her concerns over Native Hawaiian sovereignty and whether her votes constitute war crimes.
Ruggles, who formally leaves office in December after dropping her re-election bid in June, left Kona council chambers following tense exchanges with Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela and Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung.
Other council members seemed flustered by the unexpected departure from the agenda during a day that would have otherwise been taken up with routine matters. That business took a backseat several times, as Ruggles and Kamelamela debated over whether she had a right to participate in the meeting if she refused to vote.
After being excused early in the day, Ruggles returned two hours later, only to again be told she can’t sit at the dais as long as she refused to vote.
At issue for Ruggles is a letter Keanu Sai of the Kingdom of Hawaii sent to elected officials.
The letter included a Feb. 25 memorandum from an independent expert to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that characterized the Hawaiian Islands as a “sovereign nation-state in continuity; but a nation-state that is under a strange form of occupation by the United States resulting from an illegal military occupation and a fraudulent annexation.”
Ruggles said she subsequently did her own research, and has retained Honolulu attorney Stephen Laudig to help her determine whether her official council actions could make her criminally liable under international humanitarian law. Her office provided the media with a 394-page letter Laudig sent Kamelamela earlier Tuesday.
The councilwoman said she will refrain from voting or chairing committees until Kamelamela gives her a formal opinion she isn’t breaking international law.
“I am a firm believer in the rule of law and not the politics of power and I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States when I took this office, and I want to make sure I am not breaking those laws,” Ruggles said, reading from a statement.
She said her understanding is the Hague and Geneva Conventions are international treaties ratified by the United States.
In particular, Ruggles questioned whether she could participate in making laws, where the laws of the Hawaiian Kingdom must be administered and not the laws of the United States; whether she could collect taxes from protected persons where international law prohibited pillaging; whether she could be complicit in the foreclosures of properties of protected persons for delinquent property taxes where international law prohibits the confiscation of private property and whether she could be complicit in criminal prosecutions where protected persons are prohibited from being unlawfully confined and cannot be denied a fair and regular trial by a tribunal with competent jurisdiction.
“I would like to be clear that this action on my part should not be construed as a publicity stunt but rather upon the advice of counsel given the awareness I have gained regarding alleged war crimes,” she added.
Ruggles wanted to remain at her council seat and abstain from voting but was told council rules require her to vote.
Kamelamela said he hadn’t read the letter, but he’s familiar with arguments from what he termed “the alleged kingdom of Hawaii.”
He assured Ruggles she wouldn’t be violating international law or committing war crimes by voting. Not voting, however, is a disservice to her constituents, he said.
“When you abstain, you are not representing your district,” Kamelamela said. “It has to be something. Yes or no. … Your presence here is not going to move the body forward.”
Chung urged Ruggles to reconsider her position.
“We are part of the United States of America, a sub-unit thereof,” said Chung, an attorney. “If Ms. Ruggles is not going to reconsider … I’m going to object to her being here.”
Chung said he was “confused” and “perplexed” that Ruggles wanted to continue sitting in a body she’s claiming may be illegitimate.
“She ran for office under the laws of Hawaii. … She took an oath,” Chung said. “It all presupposes an adherence to the laws of the state of Hawaii and the United States of America.”
Kamelamela also wanted clarity.
“There seems to be an implication this whole body is illegitimate, which I disagree with,” Kamelamela added. “If you believe you can’t even act here, then one option is to just leave.”
The Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement and activists were buzzing with the news shortly after Ruggles sent out a press release and her comments played out over county live webcasts. Many took heart in the enunciation by an elected public official of their own long-held concerns.
“This is what bona fide due diligence looks like,” activist Suzy Case said in a Facebook post. “Every person serving in any government should question the motivations of every law, every single time … especially if there is a question of possible war crimes or crimes against humanity.”