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human rights in the United States

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While the human rights record of the United States of America has featured an avowed commitment to the protection of specific personal political, religious and other freedoms, it has also had a long history of legally-sanctioned slavery, and both de jure and de facto racial and ethnic-religious discrimination, and occasional violation of those freedoms, particularly in times of "national security" crisis. In the early 21st century, most notably following September 11 and the ensuing War on Terror, invasions of privacy, intrusive inspections, and questionable detentions under the USA PATRIOT Act, as well as the alleged use of torture at prisons in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, and the verified use of torture in Iraq represent predominant issues.

As with the most developed countries, the government and press attempt to engage in continual public review of alleged human rights abuses. Given that the modern concept of human rights developed primarily out of 20th century liberal Western thought, assessments of the United States human rights record often tend to measure its conformity to that political model. Nonetheless, several of the most prominent issues, those arising from the treatment of prisoners in the war on terror, fall under activities least open to public scrutiny due to their national security and military nature.


The principles of legal egalitarianism underlying the United States Constitution, upon which the United States is founded, were and are tempered with a political pragmatism that has occasionally undercut the human rights ideals that the document espouses. The Constitution created what was, in 1787, a distinguished progressive democracy that guaranteed unprecedented social and economic rights for much of its citizenry. Yet at the same time, the very same founding document implicitly [1] sanctioned slavery, which was not completely abolished until 1865 after the American Civil War, and lynching of blacks was relatively common into the middle 1900s. Only in 1968 did the Supreme Court rule explicitly against racial segregation laws.

This mixture of idealism and compromise has produced a paradoxical human rights record. The American system claims to aim at a free society where life, liberty and a host of inalienable human rights are guaranteed by its Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Human rights in the United States of America are built on the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with natural human rights. Some confuse equal rights with equal authority and thus assume that those with less authority lack these rights which gives birth to the mistaken hypothesis that by "men" the Declaration of Independence meant, white males.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, equal suffrage, and property rights. Such affirmations of human rights are the product of nearly four centuries of struggle and social progress aiming for a fair and just society, with its beginnings in 1634 when the first colonies in Maryland were founded on the basis of religious tolerance. However, some Americans attempting to exercise these fundamental human rights have been persecuted at various times throughout the country's history.

Most citizens tend to be optimistic about the United States Constitution and point out it is still a work in progress and changes to it are continuously under consideration as the needs of the society of the United States change. An example of this is how the status of human rights in the United States recently have come under scrutiny for the government's positions on capital punishment, police brutality, the War on Drugs, and sexual morality.

Finer points which are sometimes debated are a perceived media concentration that might drown out voices of dissent, campaign finance in the United States preventing a "fair" election, details of the justice system minimum sentencing guidelines, coercion into plea bargains and inadequate public defenders. Such issues often come up because of different interpretations of what is constitutional by the various authorities. Some rights issues are portrayed as a political split, pitching the rights of one group against another. For example, Americans have the right to form trade unions but some states have passed laws to guarantee an individual's right to work, a right not guaranteed in states with Collective bargaining statutes, and which have made it difficult for unions to negotiate contracts. However, in the vast majority of states, at-will employment (an employee can be fired for any or no reason) is the norm and unions have very little power to fight this. Also, in the more conservative states (red states), generally in the Deep South and Midwest, union influence is limited in general. In regards to abortion, the right of women to terminate a pregnancy is generally contrasted with the rights of unborn children.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, pressure from the government for more surveillance of suspected terrorist cells activities has led to heightened criticism of the government's violation of people's privacy and of control measures that do not respect suspected terrorist prisoners' dignity. In the aftermath of those attacks, there have been signs from the Federal government of a noticeable shift away from Constitutional safeguards traditionally afforded American citizens, notably:

  • Two Pakistani Americans allegedly affiliated with the Islamic militant group Harakat ul-Ansar were arrested in Pakistan by Pakistani authorities and held and allegedly tortured in a Pakistani jail. The two allege that they were interrogated by men flashing FBI agent shields. [2]
  • The detention without charge, for months on end, of United States citizens suspected of ties to insurgents in Iraq (for instance, for carrying washing machine timers in their car trunks). [3]. (The Associated Press reported on July 7 2005, that the United States was holding five Americans in Iraq.)[unverified]
  • The arrest, without charge, of large numbers of Muslim men as "material witnesses" in cases related to Terrorist activities in the United States.[4].

Slavery and racial discrimination[edit]

Main articles: history of slavery in the United States racism in the United States

At the time of the American Revolution, slavery was an established institution, especially in the southern states. The "peculiar institution" was a potentially contentious issue at the Philadelphia Convention. In order to maintain unity among the former colonies, the Three-Fifths Compromise counted slaves as three-fifths of a person, for the purposes of allocating Congressional representation, and a guarantee of tax-free slave imports was written into the document, but only for a limited time. Slavery continued, but remained a controversial national issue, generating considerable regional conflict over the practice and its expansion into new states. Half the states in the Union maintained slavery until 1865.

Most historians consider the economic and ethical conflicts over slavery to be one of the primary causes of the American Civil War, which began in 1861. The wartime Emancipation Proclamation of Union President Abraham Lincoln turned northern soldiers into slave liberators. Following the northern victory, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution established Black citizenship rights and "equal protection".

These legal protections did not change popular sentiment, especially in the southern states, and substantial racial discrimination persisted. Discriminatory practices continued to be institutionalized in law for the next century, including Jim Crow laws and the separate but equal theory endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. It was not until 1954 when the Court reversed its decision, in Brown v. Board of Education. In time, slow cultural changes and the Civil Rights Movement won the passage of strong anti-discrimination legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Strong federal guarantees now provide the ability to sue any national, state, or local government agency for racial discrimination. Private prejudice is somewhat protected as a form of free expression and free association, but in many business dealings is illegal. Significant economic inequality exists between different racial groups.

Various Supreme Court rulings have restricted some types of affirmative action, on the grounds that they descriminate against the majority white population and non-underrepresented minorities.


Torture and abuse[edit]

Certain practices of the United States military, civilian agencies such as the CIA, and private contractors are widely criticized, with some practices allegedly amounting to torture. It should be noted that fierce debate regarding non-standard and enhanced interrogation techniques exists within the US civilian and military intelligence community, with no general consensus as to what practices under what conditions are acceptable. These practices include: extended forced maintenance of "stress positions" such as standing or squatting; psychological tricks and "mind games"; sensory deprivation; exposure to loud music and noises; extended exposure to flashing lights; prolonged solitary confinement; denigration of religion; withholding of food, drink, or medical care; withholding of hygienic care or toilet facilities; prolonged hooding; forced injections of unknown substances; sleep deprivation; magneto-cranial stimulation resulting in mental confusion; threats of bodily harm; threats of rendition to torture-friendly states or Guantánamo; threats of rape or sodomy; threats of harm to family members; threats of imminent execution; prolonged constraint in contorted positions (including strappado, or "Palestinian hanging"); facial smearing of real or simulated feces, urine, menstrual blood, or semen; sexual humiliation; beatings, often requiring surgery or resulting in permanent physical or mental disability; release or threat of release to attack dogs, both muzzled or un-muzzled; near-suffocation or asphyxiation via multiple detainment hoods, plastic bags, water-soaked towels or blankets, duct tape, or ligatures; gassing and chemical spraying resulting in unconsciousness; confinement in small chambers too small to fully stand or recline; prolonged underwater immersion just short of drowning (i.e. dunking); and extended exposure to extreme temperatures below freezing or above 120 °F (48 °C). These practices have resulted in a number of deaths. According to Human Rights First, as many as 46 detainees have been murdered or tortured to death in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. [5]

Torture and abuse is strictly illegal and punishable within US territorial bounds. The legality of abuse occurring on foreign soil, outside of usual US territorial jurisdiction, is however somewhat murky. Accordingly, the United States Administration creates an ad-hoc category called unlawful combatants, that have no basis in U. S. or international law, to deprive such persons of protection under the Geneva Convention as prisoners of war, and are keep and interrogated them on foreign soil. Both United States citizens and foreign nationals are occasionally captured outside of the United States and transferred to secret US administered detention facilities, sometimes being held incommunicado for periods of months or years. Overseas detention facilities are known to be or to have been maintained at least in Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Cyprus, Cuba, Diego Garcia, and unspecified South Pacific island nation(s). In addition, individuals are suspected to be or to have been held in temporary or permanent US controlled facilities in Indonesia, El Salvador, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Israel, Denmark, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary, Germany, and Scotland. There are also allegations that persons categorized as prisoners of war have been tortured, abused or humiliated; or otherwise have had their rights afforded by the Geneva Convention violated. In 2004 photos showing humiliation and abuse of prisoners leaked from Abu Ghraib prison, causing a political and media scandal in the US.

The detention camps at the US Naval base of Guantánamo Bay, hosting over 500 detainees, have gained notoriety in recent years. Some detainees have been held for up to four years without charge or trial. Detainees have included American citizens and children as young as 11 year old. Though often criticized for being denied due process, all detainees have received review before Combatant Status Review Tribunals subsequent to US Supreme Court rulings.

Freedom of expression[edit]

Main article: freedom of speech in the United States

In the United States, like other liberal democracies, freedom of expression (including speech, media, and public assembly) is seen as an important right and is given special protection. According to Supreme Court precedent, the federal and lower governments may not apply prior restraint to expression. There is no law punishing insults against the government, ethnic groups, or religious groups. Symbols of the government or its officials may be destroyed in protest, including the American flag. Significant legal limits on expression per se include:

Some laws remain controversial due to concerns that they infringe on freedom of expression. These include the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Such laws can be brought before the federal courts to determine their constitutionality, but the expense and time required is often prohibitive. Other recent issues include military censorship of blogs written by military personnel in Iraq.

In two high profile cases, grand juries have decided that Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller must reveal their sources in cases involving CIA leaks. Time magazine cooperated with authorities after exhausting its legal appeals, and Mr. Cooper eventually agreed to testify. Ms. Miller was jailed for 85 days before cooperating. U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan ruled that the First Amendment does not insulate Time magazine reporters from a requirement to testify before a criminal grand jury that's conducting the investigation into the possible illegal disclosure of classified information.

Other journalists who've been legally pressured to provide information to investigators include Tim Russert, who moderates NBC's "Meet the Press," Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, and syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak.

Several foreign journalists including British reporter Elena Lappin who arrived in the USA without an I-visa have been jailed and deported since the 2001 terrorists attacks. Citizens of many Western countries are exempt from a U.S. visa requirement intended mainly for tourists. However, they must declare that they are not representing the "foreign information media." This requirement is outside the norms of other democratic countries, and many journalists entering the USA were not aware of it. In 2005, the United States territory was ranked 44th in the annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.

Death penalty[edit]

See also death pentalty

The United States, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore are the only "developed nations" to use capital punishment in practice. This practice is controversial. Death penalty opponents regard the death penalty as inhumane and criticize it for its irreversibility and claim that it lacks a deterrent effect. Further, opponents often point to overrepresentation of blacks on death row as evidence of the unequal racial application of the death penalty (2003 [6]). It is the official policy of the European Union and of a number of non-EU nations to achieve global abolition of the death penalty. For this reason the EU is vocal in its criticism of the death penalty in the US and has submitted amicus curiae briefs in a number of important US court cases related to capital punishment. While criticism of the death penalty within the United States is strong among activist groups, public support varies regionally. The death penalty has been largely abolished in the Northeast, while the South and West continue to conduct executions. Texas overwhelmingly leads the United States in executions, with 359 executions from 1976 to 2006. The second-highest ranking state is Virginia, with 94. A 2002 Houston Chronicle poll of Texans found that when asked "Do you support the death penalty?" 69.1% responded that they did, 21.9% did not support and 9.1% were not sure or gave no answer.

A ruling on 2005 March 1 by the United States Supreme Court prohibits the execution of people who committed their crimes when they were under the age of 18. Between 1990 and 2005, Amnesty International recorded 19 executions in the United States for crime committed by a juvenile.

National security exceptions[edit]

The United States government has on several occasions claimed exceptions to guaranteed rights on grounds of protecting national security. It typically invokes exceptions in wartime or during international conflicts short of war (such as the Cold War). In some instances the federal courts have allowed these exceptions, while in others the courts have decided that the national security interest was insufficient.

Sedition laws have sometimes placed restrictions on freedom of expression. The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by President John Adams during an undeclared naval conflict with France, allowed the government to punish "false" statements about the government and to deport "dangerous" immigrants. The Federalist Party used these acts to harass supporters of the Democratic-Republican Party. Congress passed another broad sedition law during World War I. Its provisions were so strict that the government imprisoned one Hollywood director for making a film about the American Revolution because it depicted the British unfavorably. These laws lapsed or became inactive at the end of the conflict.

Presidents have claimed the power to imprison summarily, under military jurisdiction, those suspected of being combatants for states or groups at war against the United States. Abraham Lincoln invoked this power in the American Civil War to imprison Maryland secessionists. In that case, the Supreme Court concluded that only Congress could suspend the right of habeas corpus, and the government released the detainees. During World War II, the United States interned thousands of Japanese-Americans on fears that Japan might use them as saboteurs. In the recent campaign against terrorist groups, the government has detained suspected al Qaeda affiliates like Yaser Esam Hamdi, who also had his citizenship revoked.[unverified]

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution forbids unreasonable search and seizure without a warrant, but some administrations have claimed exceptions to this rule to investigate alleged conspiracies against the government. During the Cold War, the FBI established COINTELPRO to infiltrate and disrupt left-wing organizations, including those that supported the rights of black Americans. More recently the USA PATRIOT Act has been attacked as eroding Fourth Amendment protections.

National security, as well as other concerns like unemployment, has sometimes led the United States to toughen its generally liberal immigration policy. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 all but banned Chinese immigrants, who were accused of crowding out American workers. Today foreign nationals can be detained or deported for minor infractions, although deportation is uncommon. The government is sometimes accused of skirting the required legal procedures. Tracking of immigrants has also increased as part of the anti-terrorism campaign, so that foreigners arriving by air are now subject to mandatory fingerprinting and photography. Since 2002, male adults from any of two dozen countries, most of them Muslim, have been subject to Special Registration. The United States is sometimes criticized for the effects of its border control efforts; for instance, between 1998 and 2004, 1,954 persons are officially reported to have died along the U.S.-Mexico border.


As of 2004 the United States had the highest percentage of people in prison of any nation. At a rate of incarceration of 726 inmates per 100,000, the United States has the highest reported rate in the world, well ahead of the Russian rate of 532 per 100,000. In 2004, more than 2.1 million Americans, or roughly 1 out of every 138, were in prisons or jails, a figure which represented one third of the world's prison population. To illustrate these figures, if the United States had the same rate of incarceration as Japan or China, only about 100,000 people would be in jail. [7]

Because the legal system has imposed liability upon employers for negligence in hiring ex-convicts and in supervising them, many employers now make background checks a mandatory part of the hiring process. As a result, prisoners who are released often have difficulty finding jobs and often return to crime to support themselves.

According to Human Rights Watch, "black men [in 2000] were eight times more likely to be in prison than white men". [8] According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, approximately 40.2% of the prison population is black, while 32.1% of the population is Hispanic, [9] with several enquiries and critics commenting negatively on the use of racial profiling and the overrepresentation of minorities in American prisons.

Sexual abuse in United States prisons is believed by many to be widespread. It has been fought against by organizations such as Stop Prisoner Rape, some of whom allege that some wardens use sexual abuse as a control tool in the prisons.

The United States also has "supermax prisons", where the most dangerous prisoners are kept in soundproofed solitary confinement for 23 hours a day with almost no human contact. They are often defended as appropriate for mass murderers, but there have been reports that some nonviolent prisoners have been sent to supermaxes.[unverified]

In many states, those convicted of felony offenses are banned from voting. These laws have a much greater effect on minorities, especially African Americans, as they are more likely to be convicted of felonies. In some United States cities, for example, half of all black men cannot vote, and in states such as Florida and Alabama, as many as a third of black men cannot vote. For this reason, the constitutionality of this practice is likely to be tested in the United States Supreme Court in due course. (see Count Every Vote Act)

Health and the family[edit]

In recent years several human rights issues regarding health and the family have been widely debated across the United States. The first is the question of whether a woman has a right to terminate a pregnancy or, as it is cast by opponents of abortion, whether the unborn child has a right to life. Although a Supreme Court decision (Roe v. Wade) established that most laws against abortion violate a constitutional right to privacy - it should be noted that this "right" appears nowhere in the Constitution - opponents of that decision have been pressing for the appointment of judges who might reverse that ruling.

At the other end of life, are the questions of whether a terminally-ill person has the right to decide the time of death (euthanasia) and whether the families of patients who have permanently lost all brain activity can end medical care or stop feeding. Both questions have been hotly contested and families are sometimes forced to endure lengthy court battles.

Unlike many other industrialized countries, the United States does not treat health care as a fundamental human right and provides publicly funded medicine only to people falling into certain limited categories. This has resulted in a wide gap in the quality of treatment between those who can afford health insurance, or who have it provided as an employee benefit, and those who do not. On the other hand, some have alleged that the US federal government pays more for health care than some other national governments, in part because the uninsured tend to seek care only once conditions become serious, and to use emergency rooms (which are required by law to serve even those who cannot pay) as primary-care facilities for conditions such as ear infections. (See Health care in the United States and Canadian and American health care systems compared for more details.)

A major reason for this is the ascendancy of the Republican Party (especially in 1980 and 1994), which strongly opposes universal health care as "socialized medicine" and "big government". Another reason is the opposition from powerful insurance lobbyists, who worked in concert with the Republicans to defeat the health care reforms proposed in 1994 by then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton. The Republican Party and insurance industry has promulgated stories (many unverified) of substandard care and waiting lists in Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries as reasons for the United States to not adopt universal health care.

While some countries such as Canada and Spain have recognized same-sex marriage, the issue remains hotly contested in the United States. There has recently been talk of defining marriage as one man and one woman by directly writing it into of the U.S. Constitution; which would rule out all homosexual marriages. As of 2005, same-sex marriage has official status only in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, though some states offer similar privileges to same-sex couples. (See Same-sex marriage in the United States).

Assessments of human rights organizations[edit]

Amnesty International states for the year 2000:

Police brutality, disputed shootings and ill-treatment in prisons and jails were reported. In May the U.N. Committee against Torture considered the initial report of the USA on implementation of the U.N. Convention against Torture. Eighty-five prisoners were executed in 14 states bringing to 683 the total number of people executed since 1976. Those executed included individuals who were children under 18 at the time of their crimes, and the mentally impaired.

In 2005 the organization expressed alarm at the erosion in civil liberties since the 9/11 attacks. According to Amnesty:

The Guantánamo Bay detention camp has become a symbol of the United States administration’s refusal to put human rights and the rule of law at the heart of its response to the atrocities of 11 September 2001. It has become synonymous with the United States executive’s pursuit of unfettered power, and has become firmly associated with the systematic denial of human dignity and resort to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that has marked the USA’s detentions and interrogations in the "war on terror".[10]

Amnesty also condemned the Guantánamo facility as "the gulag of our times," which raised heated conversation in the United States. The purported legal status of "unlawful combatants" in those nations currently holding detainees under that name has been the subject of criticism by other nations and international human rights institutions including Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC, in response to the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan, published a paper on the subject The legal situation of unlawful/unprivileged combatants (IRRC March 2003 Vol.85 No 849). See Unlawful combatant. China has criticized racial discrimination in its annual China's Human Rights Record of the United States. HRW cites two sergeants and a captain accusing U.S. troops of torturing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. [11]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

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