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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