The USA and Human Rights

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  • by Anup Shah
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The leaders of the United States of America are proud to present the picture of being the foremost bearers of human rights.

  • Yet, they have often been heavily criticized1 for advancing their own interests and of double standards.
  • They often have not ratified2 various international human rights related treaties (and where it has, there have been many, many reservations).
  • US diplomats were influential in drawing up the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet the USA has not always put (some of their own) words into action.

On this page:

  1. Human Rights Within the United States
  2. USA and International Human Rights
    1. USA voted off the UN Human Rights Commission in 2001
    2. International Human Rights Treaty Obligations
    3. The Clinton Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention

Human Rights Within the United States

Amnesty International has long called3 for the USA to have a greater respect for human rights.

One of the things that they campaign on constantly is the death penalty4 and the innocent5 who are sometimes killed as a result. In fact, Amnesty International (where the two previous links are from) has been quite vocal about the death penalty frequently:

The USA is engaged in a cruel, brutalizing, unreliable, unnecessary and hugely expensive activity for no measurable gain.

... There is no evidence that the US authorities have prevented a single crime with this policy ... They have diverted countless millions of dollars away from more constructive efforts to fight crime. And the macabre absurdity is that it creates more victims - the family members of the condemned - often in the name of victims' rights.

The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it. The sooner US politicians begin to find the political courage to educate public opinion rather than hide behind it, the better.

USA: Flouting world trends, violating international standards6, Amnesty International, March 1, 2001

There have been about half a million murders in the USA since 1977. In the same period, 716 men and women have been executed. This is a punishment, these bare statistics suggest, reserved for the worst of the worst of murderers in the USA. But how can that be true if, for example, learning disabled prisoners are among the condemned? ... It is time they [U.S. leaders] took it upon themselves to measure US standards of decency against the aspirations of the international community on the death penalty.

USA: Time to recognize international standards of decency7, Amnesty International, 5th June, 2001.

(You can see Amnesty International's USA campaign on-line8 for additional information.)

Police brutality9 in the US has been a known problem. (The previous link is from an article about a 450-page report10 released by Human Rights Watch that accuses local governments and federal officials of failing to address this issue.) Probably the most well known recent case was the 1991 Rodney King incident11 in Los Angeles that led to riots in that city.

The Republican Convention and Democratic Convention for the 2000 elections had been accompanied by large public protests. However, the mainstream media did not report much on the police brutality involved to silence the dissenters. There were many, many mainstream and alternative sites around the world following the 2000 election race (as it was a global issue -- one Ugandan citizen lamented at how he didn't have a right to vote in the U.S. elections, and yet the U.S. influences his country more than his own government!). However, to look at the issues not covered by the mainstream (and an analysis of the issue that are covered!), you can start at the ZNet Convention Convergence12 section.

Health and other social rights were also becoming important issues while the economy was booming in the late 1990s and early 2000s (for some) yet leaving more and more people out. Some 44 million people in the U.S. do not have health insurance, for example. As another example, an Inter Press Service summary13 of a report titled Economic Apartheid in America points out that the United States is the only industrialised nation that views health care as a privilege, not a basic human right. (Unfortunately the report itself not available on the Internet, but is produced by United for a Fair Economy14 where you can see many extracts and similar reports.)

In what is the second most hazardous industry to work in, after mining, agriculture is also the most hazardous for children, in the United States. Human Rights Watch reports how the US fails to protect child workers15.

In Amnesty International's 2001 report, they pointed out that there were many cases of torture and ill-treatment in prisons and jails16, where [a]buses included beatings and excessive force; sexual misconduct; the misuse of electro-shock weapons and chemical sprays; and the cruel use of mechanical restraints, including holding prisoners for prolonged periods in four-point restraint as punishment. Many reported abuses took place in isolation units or during forced removal of prisoners from cells (cell extractions). The USA incidentally also has the world's largest prison population17 of roughly 2 million people, which accounts for approximately a quarter of the world's prison population.

For 2000, for example, Human Rights Watch also reported18 that the United States made little progress in embracing international human rights standards at home.

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USA and International Human Rights

For 1999's session of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, Amnesty International put the United States on a list19 of persistent violators of human rights, higher than China and excluding Cuba. (Here is the full document20.)

In early March 1999, President Clinton made an apology for US support of successive right-wing governments in Guatemala (which got a brief mention21 in US mainstream media compared to all the things that could have been revealed). While this was a positive step, some were hoping that this could lead towards a US Truth Commission22 to look into and expose Washington's similar aid (sometimes worse) during the Cold War to repressive government regimes in other nations, especially in Latin America. That is not too likely, given the time that has since elapsed and lack of discussions on such a notion.

US corporations have been heavily criticized for supporting regimes that abuse people's rights, or even employing local militias and militaries to violate people's rights. The corporations often seek out cheaper resources and labor. Sweatshop labor can result in some countries, manufacturing products for consumption in America. See the corporations section23 on this web site for more information.

USA voted off the UN Human Rights Commission in 2001

At the beginning of May, 2001, the United States lost its seat24 on the United Nations Human Rights Commission for the first time since the panel's founding in 1947. (The Human Rights Commission assigns investigators to probe abuses around the world.) Human Rights Watch did note the irony at how a nation like the United States could be voted off but how Sudan and other human rights violators were to be added in25. (Although, one could argue that no countries should be admitted in, in that respect!)

The U.S. claimed it was the victim of other nations ganging up to get them off the commission so they themselves were less scrutinized. Yet, that didn't explain why their friendly countries voted them off. The U.S. was voted off by their allies (not by their enemies, as commonly held, because the voting is based on regions, as Foreign Policy In Focus26 clarifies.)

Critics had pointed out that the U.S's recent go-alone stances on many international issues had been factors as well. Examples include not supporting the international criminal court27, not supporting the international landmine28 treaty, its stance on the death penalty, not paying its dues at the U.N. (leaving it to others to make up in some way, especially European nations), backing down from Kyoto29, and so on.

Admittedly, the U.S. has been more vocal than many nations on some human rights issues, but when it has come to major initiatives and substantial changes to promote and support human rights, the U.S. has, as mentioned above, often been alone, acting in their own interests30, as some examples throughout this web site will show.

Moreover, being voted off, the US Congress decided to withhold $244 million in dues owed to the United Nations31. As the previous link suggests, this is a very arrogant stance. If other nations were to do such things, they would be rightly criticized of bribing or bullying to get their way.

On the same day, the commission also voted the U.S. off the International Narcotics Control Board32.

(While there are many sources that have documented the US support and violations of human rights outside its borders, one place to start is the Noam Chomsky33 web site. Other issues covered in this web site also involve the United States. The resources provided in those sections also describe human rights violations and actions, as well as those of other nations.)

In 2002, the U.S. were voted back onto the Commission.

International Human Rights Treaty Obligations

It is interesting to look at the USA's position on some of the standard international human rights treaties, given the US's vocal position on human rights and insistence that it is the premier promoter of human rights.

The United Nation's High Commissioner for Human Rights web site shows the status34 of ratification of the principle human rights treaties35. Of the twelve main treaty bodies, the United States has only signed the following, but not ratified them (as of 21 August, 2002):

  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights36
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women37
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child38

Additionally (also as of 21 August, 2002), they have not either signed or ratified the following:

  • The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families39 (MWC), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1990 and will enter into force when at least 20 States have accepted it;
  • The Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights40 (OPT), which is supervised by the Human Rights Committee to receive and consider, as provided in the present Protocol, communications from individuals claiming to be victims of violations of any of the rights set forth in the Covenant.
  • The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at the abolition of the death penalty41 (OPT2).

Many nations have not ratified and/or signed these last three, but the US does stand out in this area overall given the position it claims to lead. Some of the reasons of not signing these include geopolitical reasons, internal politics etc. In a couple of cases, it could be argued that given the strong US Constitution, that some of these do not need to be ratified. However, it would be an even stronger and more responsible step to ensure that these are ratified due to that reason.

There are a number of situations today that would leave the US in an uncomfortable position if it had signed and ratified these. For example (and the following is an extremely small and simplified set of examples on what is a complex subject)

  • Many immigration policies for migrants are harsh and often they do not have all the political rights and protection needed.
  • Some asylum seekers are simply denied entry based on where they are from. Contrast Cuban and Haiti asylum seekers. Cubans are usually given the right to enter, due to political differences and to show the humanitarian nature of the US. But compare this with Haiti where the US are supposed to have restored democracy (actually, they have opposed it and promoted dictators that are in line with the US's commercial interests there -- mainly cheap, exploitable labor and resources). Hardly any Haitans have been allowed onto US shores in comparison. (For more about that, check out the Haiti42 section on this web site.)
  • The death penalty is a known issue. In fact, it is interesting to see the number of reservations43 by many other countries that signed the above conventions. Many friendly nations of the US also raised concerns on the US's decision not to observe the article that would prevent the use of the death penalty on children under the age of 18. (In the previous link, go to the Objections sections to see this.)
  • As many people have commented upon for years, (and detailed for example in this report44 from Human Rights Watch), US labor standards are poor, despite rhetoric of the opposite, and often violate basic rights.

That is not to say that other countries do not have problems with their policies. Indeed, in some areas, the United States fairs better than others who have ratified some of these treaties. The point then, is not to do some US-bashing, but more to highlight some of the reality of the US's human rights situation, versus the rhetoric that it portrays to its citizens and others.

It is noted and accepted that throughout this web site, there are more examples using the United States on various issues. Reasons are numerous, including:

  • That there is more published information and research on the United States that is readily available
  • The US has been the most influential nation around the world and continues to be so -- it's policies, actions, inaction and rhetoric therefore affect everyone around the world
  • If the United States claims to be the beacon for human rights promotion around the world, then it only makes sense that it must be subject to detailed analysis and criticism itself. This is especially so if all other nations were to follow its examples -- to do less would be to lower the high standards, which are the rhetoric, from being a reality, within both the United States and elsewhere.

The Clinton Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention

Shortly after the Kosovo crisis ended, the Clinton Administration came out with the Clinton doctrine. This doctrine basically stated that the United States would forcefully intervene to prevent human rights abuses when it can do so without suffering substantial casualties, without the authority of the UN Security Council.

Tony Blair is a young man I like very much, Mr [Nelson] Mandela said. But I am resentful about the type of thing that America and Britain are doing. They want now to be the policemen of the world and I'm sorry that Britain has joined the US in this regard.

It's a totally wrong attitude. They must persuade those countries like China or Russia who threaten to veto their decisions at the UN. They must sit down and talk to them. They can't just ignore them and start their own actions.

Anthony Sampson, Mandela accuses policeman Britain45, the Guardian, April 5, 2000.

This is a pretty serious precedent for a powerful country to set as it in effect undermines international law and treaty obligations. The US has in the past been extremely selective in the determination of where humanitarian intervention (or even just concern) is needed. Allies of the US have often been gross human rights violators, but those abuses have been conveniently ignored by the US to be able to pursue its national interests (i.e. economic liberalization of other nations, ensuring resources that the US needs remain as cheap as practically possible and so on). In some regions, the US continues to provide arms to allies that use them to commit gross violations of human rights (and that in effect, helps the US pursue its national interests. After all, why else would they knowingly support human rights violators?).

Without the authority of the UN Security Council basically implies another step to undermine the UN. It should be noted that the UN does have its flaws which need to be addressed (for example, the U.N. Security Council, plus the idea of 5 permanent (nuclear) members of the Council, is not exactly very democratic). However, it also is the main international body set up to promote universal human rights.

The US was key in helping set it up shortly after the second World War. Various UN treaties and charters, one of which is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the US has signed, form parts of international law which all member states are bound to. So, to prevent human rights abuses by by-passing the United Nations suggests that the definition of human rights which the US wishes to uphold is different to what they helped create and sign. It also suggests that the US has other motives when it will choose to intervene.

See Humanitarian Military Intervention46, Vol 5, Number 1, 2000 from Foreign Policy in Focus, for additional information. As it suggests, the US should not employ military force for alleged humanitarian reasons without the explicit approval of the Security Council and should end military support of nations committing serious human rights violations as well as strengthen its own participation in international human rights agreements.

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