Demonstrators remember Michael Brown with a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march from the apartment complex where he was killed to the Ferguson police station on Jan. 19, 2015 in Ferguson, Mo.
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The state of human rights in America

Updated

This column is part of “The State of America,” an msnbc.com series leading up to President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Jan. 20. This is the state of the issues you care about, as told by organizations promoting social change and other policy experts.

The United States of America was founded on the radical idea that all human beings are created equal and have, by virtue of their shared humanity, certain inalienable rights. The work of securing and protecting those rights – of realizing the promise of liberty and justice for all – has been the work of the American people on the long march toward “a more perfect union.”

Perfection is out of reach, of course; but the U.S. can make progress in that direction – and leaders can help chart the course. That’s what President Obama, whose compass on rights has sometimes failed him, should do tonight.

The right to live free of discrimination is a core human rights principle. But as protests in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and throughout the nation have lately reminded us, too many Americans of color feel, with justification, that the U.S. criminal justice system is biased against them.

“Too many Americans of color feel, with justification, that the U.S. criminal justice system is biased against them.”
Under the banner of the “war on drugs,” the United States has locked up a staggering number of African-American men, many for minor, non-violent drug offenses. Black men have been arrested nationwide on drug charges at higher rates than whites for nearly three decades — they’re four times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana — nothwithstanding that they commit drug offenses at comparable rates.

African-Americans make up around 40% of all drug offenders in state and federal prisons, many serving breathtakingly harsh mandatory minimum drug sentences out of all proportion with the principle that punishment should fit the crime — sentences that even some judges, powerless to modify them, say go too far.

To President Obama’s credit, his administration has made a priority of addressing what his attorney general has acknowledged are “systemic and unwarranted racial disparities” throughout the U.S. criminal justice system, from policing and prosecutions to incarceration and the imposition of the death penalty. His administration has stepped up investigations into whether law enforcement agencies have engaged in a “pattern or practice” of civil rights abuses, and the president appointed a task force to examine how the police can protect the public effectively while rebuilding trust with the communities they serve.

The administration has also adopted policies to rein in mandatory minimum drug sentences, instructing prosecutors to hold back from seeking the harshest penalties, and has instituted a new clemency initiative for federal prisoners serving excessive terms.

But Obama can do more. He should work with Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act, which would condition federal funding in part on progress toward eliminating racial bias in policing. And he should press for improvements in the federal collection of data on the use of excessive force by federal, state, local law enforcement authorities to establish whether such incidents disproportionately affect African-Americans and other minorities, as many suspect. And he should press Congress to pass sentencing reform legislation that would give judges more of a say in sentencing for drug offenses and reduce some mandatory drug sentences.

On immigration policy, while Obama has overseen the deportation of a record two million immigrants, many with families in the U.S., he deserves some credit for his recent executive actions. He has extended relief from deportation to migrants who came as children as well as for the parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

But these actions are temporary and reversible, and left a number of major human rights issues unaddressed, not least the internationally recognized right to family unity. He did not extend relief to the parents of U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident children if the parents are apprehended at the border – some 50,000 a year. In fact, he effectively did the opposite, directing immigration agents to fast-track the deportation of people stopped at the border.

Nor did he address the surge in federal border prosecutions for illegal entry and re-entry that has put behind bars thousands of immigrants with families in the United States. 

“Tonight, President Obama can begin to chart a course toward a more perfect union, and toward a human rights legacy that he, and the American people, can be proud of.”

Obama has fallen notably short on national security issues. Among other mistakes and failures, he has resisted criminal prosecution of those who planned and carried out torture under the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. He has authorized abusive surveillance practices that violate the right to privacy of millions of people and hamper the work of journalists, lawyers, and civil society groups.

He has continued to hold detainees at Guantanamo without charge or trial, despite some recent transfers. And he has approved still-secret legal justifications for targeted killings operations outside of armed conflict situations in many parts of the world.

If he’s serious about promoting human rights at home, Obama should use the remainder of his term to push for accountability for torture, end the bulk collection of communications data, bring the legal framework for his counterterrorism policies into the light for public debate and review, and continue the push to close Guantanamo, as he promised to do on his second day in office.

Tonight, President Obama can begin to chart a course toward a more perfect union, and toward a human rights legacy that he, and the American people, can be proud of.

Julian Brookes is a senior editor with the US Program at Human Rights Watch.

Human rights, State of the Union and The State Of The Union

The state of human rights in America

Updated