Widespread criticism of U.S. human rights practices as 2016 gets underway

us human rights

Numerous non-governmental organizations and a UN panel of experts last week issued a litany of serious concerns about the state of human rights in the United States as the new year – and President Obama’s final year in office – gets underway. Considering the depth and breadth of criticism, it is clear that Obama will be leaving behind a troubling legacy of human rights problems, which will prove not only a challenge for his successor (assuming the next president gives a whit about human rights), but also the nation as a whole for many years to come.

Amnesty International, for starters, issued a harsh statement on January 29, regretting that a full seven years into Obama’s presidency, the human rights abomination known as Guantanamo Bay remains open – despite Obama’s many promises over the years to close the notorious prison.

“Two weeks after the Guantánamo Bay detention site entered its 15th year of operation, the detention site faces a new milestone,” Amnesty noted in a press release Friday. “As of tomorrow, January 30, Guantánamo will have been open longer under President Obama’s administration than the previous administration which opened the site for indefinite detention.”

Marking the shameful milestone, Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights program, issued the following statement:

With Guantánamo now open longer on his watch than on former President Bush’s, President Obama’s human rights legacy is on the line. In some ways, Obama will be defined by whether he chose to end fifteen years of injustice and human rights violations at Guantánamo.

President Obama was able to cut the prison’s population by nearly 10 percent this month alone and he must continue to show he’s undeterred by congressional threats and fear mongering. The prison should be shuttered, and detainees who cannot be transferred should be charged in federal court or released. There must be accountability for the torture and other human rights violations that many of the detainees have suffered.

Human Rights Watch also had some stern words for the United States last week. In publishing its annual catalogue of the state of human rights around the world, World Report 2016, HRW focused particular attention on misguided U.S. policies towards refugees and migrants. As the group pointed out on January 27,

In December 2014, the US opened its largest lock-up for arriving migrant families, a detention facility slated to house more than 2,400 parents and children – primarily asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. A year earlier, the US had only 85 beds specifically dedicated to detaining families. This new policy of detaining families from Central America in large numbers was in response to an influx of arrivals seeking refuge from uncontrolled gang violence in their home countries.

These policies, which criminalize and discriminate against “people seeking refuge or reunification with their families in the US during 2015 have been ill-considered, discriminatory, and harmful,” Human Rights Watch said.

“The Obama administration is sending messages of detention, discrimination, and distrust to families fleeing violence and persecution at home,” said Alison Parker, US program co-director at Human Rights Watch. “US policymakers should reverse course and stop treating undocumented arrivals as criminals.”

Other major concerns raised by HRW included:

When it comes to the issue of sentencing and mass incarceration, HRW noted that the United States locks up 2.37 million people, by far the largest incarcerated population in the world. Another 12 million people pass through local jails annually.

HRW noted that concerns over over-incarceration in prisons have led some states and the U.S. Congress to introduce several reform bills, but regretted that none of the federal congressional measures had become law.

The rights group also pointed out that racial disparities “permeate every part of the US criminal justice system,” with particularly egregious disparities when it comes to drug law enforcement.

“While whites and African Americans engage in drug offenses at comparable rates, African Americans are arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for drug offenses at much higher rates,” HRW pointed out. “African Americans are only 13 percent of the US population, but make up 29 percent of all drug arrests. Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men.”

Racial disparities in criminal justice – and virtually all other facets of American life – were also in focus last week with the conclusion of an official visit by the UN’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, which visited several U.S. cities from January 19-29.

Despite observing some positive indications of halting progress in certain areas – including a growing mass movement for racial justice and some attempts to introduce more fairness into criminal sentencing – overall, the Working Group was “extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans.”

In a statement issued January 29, the UN body said:

The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another, continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today. The dangerous ideology of white supremacy inhibits social cohesion amongst the US population. Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that the US must address. Thousands of people of African descent were killed in violent public acts of racial control and domination and the perpetrators were never held accountable.

Contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Racial bias and disparities in the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, and the tough on crime policies has disproportionately impacted African Americans. Mandatory minimum sentencing, disproportionate punishment of African Americans including the death penalty are of grave concern.

The scathing statement went on to list a whole litany of concerns ranging from discriminatory voter ID laws; states’ rejection of Medicaid expansion (with a disproportionate adverse impact on African Americans’ health); the existence of “food deserts” in many African American communities; the education system’s whitewashing of African enslavement; the housing crisis and high rates of homelessness and gentrification; the high unemployment rate of African Americans; and the environmental justice denied African Americans by highly polluting industries often disproportionately being placed in their communities.

Even Freedom House, which receives the lion’s share of its funding from the U.S. federal government, had some strong words of criticism for the United States last week.

Although the U.S. received Freedom House’s top ratings for political rights and civil liberties, the country “was affected by the cumulative impact over recent years of certain deficiencies in the electoral system, the influence of private money in election campaigns and the legislative process, legislative gridlock, the Obama administration’s failure to fulfill promises of enhanced government openness, and fresh evidence of instances of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system,” the NGO noted.

Specifically, Freedom House pointed to the ongoing “controversy over relations between black citizens and the police [which] grew in intensity in 2015.” Protests in Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and other cities highlighted “incidents in which black people, often unarmed, were shot or fatally injured in confrontations with the police,” Freedom House observed.

Another issue the group pointed to is the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States, which contravenes the U.S. government’s international obligation to protect the right to life.

As Freedom House pointed out,

Mass shootings continued to claim lives across the country, renewing a perennial discussion of proposed restrictions on gun ownership. While the targets of the separate attacks included a college campus and a women’s health clinic and featured a variety of motives, the year’s deadliest assault was carried out in San Bernardino, California, by a husband and wife who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Obama took modest executive actions to tighten enforcement of existing laws and urged further changes through the legislative process. However, the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, and the Republican Party remained strongly opposed to any new gun-control proposals.

With just one year left in his presidency, Obama obviously cannot be expected to remedy all of the above-mentioned human rights issues, and certainly not all of them can be blamed on his leadership – or lack thereof – over the past seven years. However, there are many things he could do in his final months to at least attempt to marginally improve the state of human rights in the U.S., including by prioritizing the closing of the Guantanamo prison once and for all, and reversing some of the discriminatory policies his administration has implemented on refugees and migrants.

Perhaps above all, it is important that the president begins to use the bully pulpit to more clearly speak out on human rights domestically. This way, at least, these issues may become part of the national dialogue in this crucial election year, in a way that they have not been up until now.

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