The Ethical Spectacle, April 1995, Human Rights in the U.S.

Human Rights in the U.S.

We are raised believing that our country is the world's greatest democracy, the cradle of human rights, the country so wonderful in its liberty that everyone else wants to live here. But liberty, like everything else, is not an on-off switch; it is a continuum. Where are we on that continuum?

The critiques of human rights in the U.S. that we most often hear (or refuse to hear) come from interested groups to the far right or far left on the political spectrum, those who speak of conspiracies or of genocide in this country. So, for another perspective, it is interesting to turn to a watchdog group, Human Rights Watch, that watches everybody, and that has no axe to grind except human rights. The operative document, used by Human Rights Watch as the standards it applies to the countries it watches, is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) a treaty finally signed by the U.S. in 1992 after a quarter century of hesitation.

Founded in 1978, Human Rights Watch states its charter as follows:

Human Rights Watch conducts regular, systematic investigations of human rights abuses in some seventy countries around the world. It addresses the human rights practices of governments of all political stripes, of all geopolitical alignments, and of all ethnic and religious persuasions. In internal wars it documents violations by both governments and rebel groups. Human Rights Watch defends freedom of thought and expression, due process and equal protection of the law; it documents and denounces murders, disappearances, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, exile, censorship and other abuses of internationally recognized human rights.

It issues an annual report on the countries it monitors. Here is a summary of the findings of the 1994 report (just published) on the United States:

Prison Conditions. Prisoners are forced to live in extremely overcrowded conditions at "supermaximum security" facilities. Female prisoners are treated unequally and receive fewer recreational, vocational and educational opportunities than male counterparts.

Immigrants and Refugees. For part of 1994, the U.S. interdicted Haitian boat people and summarily repatriated them to Haiti, denying them the opportunity to petition for political asylum. Shipboard screenings of political asylum claimants were instituted, and then, in a third shift of policy, intercepted Haitians were taken to Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. Meanwhile, allegations relating to Border Patrol and Customs officials on the U.S./Mexican border included unjustified shootings, beatings and sexual assault.

Death Penalty. The ICCPR favors but does not require abolition of the death penalty. It limits its use to the most serious crimes, and rejects executions of juveniles. In signing the ICCPR, the U.S. entered a reservation to this provision, as certain U.S. laws and practices would have placed it in violation of the ICCPR. For example, the recent U.S. crime bill authorized the death penalty for sixty new offenses, a number of which do not involve murder. Congress rejected efforts to create a federal right to be free from racial discrimination in federal and state death penalty cases. Of the people executed in 1993, 38% were black (as opposed to about 10% of the population).

Police Brutality. The report states:

Police abuse in the United States was one of the nation's most pressing human rights issues. The persistent use of excessive force, often exacerbated by racism, violated the Article 7 prohibition on "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment"...

Reading the report leads to a few interesting insights. Human rights violations are inextricably associated in our minds with jack-booted national forces such as the SS, army, Tonton Macoute, secret police, death squads. Human rights violations may in fact be the work of any level of government. In the U.S., we have no national police, per se, though we have some federal law enforcement agencies which have a limited sympathy for the Constitution. But the biggest dangers arise in the behaviors and attitudes of the local police, because there are so many more of them, in close contact with so much of the population. The use of unwarranted and excessive force in arrests, the harassment of the marginal and those with unpopular affiliations and views, any cruel or prejudiced behavior directed against those who cannot complain or defend themselves, pollute the ownership of civil liberties as certainly as the more showy behavior of the army or secret police in other countries.

The recent House move to cut back the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, and Texas' recent execution of an innocent man came too late to be included in the report, but are examples of the kind of issues Human Rights Watch studies in the U.S.

Human Rights Watch can be contacted at 485 Fifth Avenue, N.Y., N.Y. 10017-6104, or email Send $25 for a copy of Human Rights Watch World Report 1995.