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The USA and Human Rights

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 called for the USA to have a greater respect for
human rights.
One of the things that they campaign on constantly is the death penalty and
the innocent 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
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 standards, 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 decency”, Amnesty
International, 5th June, 2001.
(You can see Amnesty International’s USA campaign on-line for additional
Police brutality in the US has been a known problem. (The previous link is from an
article about a 450-page report 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 incident 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 Convergencesection.
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 summary 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 Economy 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 workers.
In Amnesty International's 2001 report, they pointed out that there were many cases
of torture and ill-treatment in prisons and jails, 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
population 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 reported that the United States
“made little progress in embracing international human rights standards at home.”
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 list of persistent violators of human
rights, higher than China and excluding Cuba.
In early March 1999, President Clinton made an apology for US support of successive
right-wing governments in Guatemala (which got a brief mention 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
Commission 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 section 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 seat 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 in.
(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 Focus 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 court, not supporting the international landmine 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 Kyoto, 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 interests, 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 Nations. 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 Board.
(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 Chomsky 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 status of ratification of the principle human rights treaties. 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 Rights
• Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against
• Convention on the Rights of the Child
Additionally (also as of 21 August, 2002), they have not either signed or ratified the
• The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant
Workers and Members of Their Families (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
Rights(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 penalty (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 Haiti section on this web
• The death penalty is a known issue. In fact, it is interesting to see the number
ofreservations 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 report 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
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
“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” Britain, the Guardian, April 5,
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 Intervention, 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.”