Protesters rally against a grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner in Foley Square, Dec. 4, 2014, in New York, N.Y.
Photo by Jason DeCrow/AP

Legal experts pan US for disappointing human rights record

NEW YORK CITY – The United States has a record of human rights abuses despite its position as a leading voice on human rights issues worldwide, legal experts said at a forum here on Friday, from water shutoffs in Detroit and widespread police brutality to Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes. The alleged abuses include asserting immunity from and not ratifying certain international rights laws and treaties, not joining the International Criminal Court, and supporting governments with abysmal rights records of their own.

Experts at the forum, which took place at Hunter College and previewed the country’s upcoming human rights review by the United Nations, acknowledged that the U.S. is not typically considered an egregious human rights abuser. But a simple look beneath the surface, panelists said, uncovers a staggering range of human rights issues:

Lack of healthcare. Despite the Affordable Care Act’s success in promoting healthcare access, affordable health insurance is not available in many states and not accessible to undocumented immigrants. In a state like Texas, where restrictions sharply limit access to reproductive health, Latina women are twice as likely to contract cervical cancer and 30% more likely to die from it, Katrina Anderson from the Center for Reproductive Rights said.

Water shutoffs. In Detroit, 14,000 households and 38,000 people were without water at the end of 2013, according to Rob Robinson of the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative, after the city implemented a program that shut off water in households that couldn’t pay their bills. More 80% of the city’s population is African American, he added, and 40% live below the poverty line. 

Police brutality. The U.S. is now experiencing what it’s like to be both over-policed and under-protected, the Center for Popular Democracy’s Marbre Stahly-Butts argued. From the gripping videos capturing instances of police violence to the ensuing national outrage, there’s a new level of awareness around law enforcement abuses.

The response, which has largely centered around the implementation of body camera use by police, has felt inadequate to many, Stahly-Butts said, especially given the billions of dollars allocated to fighting terrorism overseas. “Why no war on racism?” she asked.

Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who died as a result of a police chokehold last year, put a human face to the issue. “If there’s a crime, there should be accountability, whether you’re wearing blue jeans, a blue business suit, or a blue uniform,” she said. His tragedy, she said, was her motivation for speaking out on behalf of human rights, specifically urging police to abide by the same laws they enforce.

Indefinite detention and drone strikes. Despite an early push by President Obama to close Guantanamo Bay, 122 men remain in the prison without charge or trial. Fifty-six of these men have been cleared for transfer out of the prison, but just five transfers have taken place so far in 2015. In another counterterrorism offensive, the Obama administration has expanded the drone strike program in Pakistan and Yemen. The Center for Constitutional Rights’ Baher Azmy told the audience that the program has killed more than one thousand civilians since 2002.

Out-of-control surveillance. The U.S. government’s large-scale data dragnet, revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, is inconsistent with the universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to Faiza Patel, a co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. The “collect-it-all” approach to surveillance eviscerates privacy, Patel argued, by allowing the government to listen in on Americans’ phone calls and read text, email and other online messages without sufficient oversight. 

Other speakers were more hopeful. Catherina Albisa, a human rights lawyer with the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative, said the U.S. began as a fierce champion of human rights and described an “emerging landscape” of young people and protesters committed to economic justice through human rights. But government commitments to those rights have languished, Albisa argued, noting America’s “manufactured” water crisis and the closing of abortion clinics in Texas as evidence of deteriorating rights for U.S. residents.

Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, co-director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program, went further, suggesting the U.S. government undermines human rights standards. The U.S. is an active participant in the United Nation’s human rights review process, she explained, but the last set of recommendations resulted in zero domestic reforms. That lack of responsiveness could undermine the review’s credibility going forward, she warned.

The U.S. is set to undergo its second United Nations review in Geneva, Switzerland, on May 11.