5 Human Rights Abuses America Commits Right Here at Home

Americans think they're the leaders on human rights. They're wrong.

Watching Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinians in Gaza over our TV screens makes it easy to forget about the human rights abuses taking place right here on American soil.

Sybrina Fulton and Ron Davis, whose sons were killed in what many believe were racially motivated attacks, are using their children's deaths to remind Americans that human rights are being violated right here in the United States.

More than a year after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, Fulton felt the humiliating pendulum of justice swing directly into her still grieving heart after a jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder. And after Michael Dunn fatally shot Jordan Davis at a Florida gas station after reportedly arguing over loud music, a jury was unable to decide if Dunn was guilty of first-degree murder.

Both Fulton and Davis are continuing to use the court system to seek justice for their sons, but they’re also taking their activism a step further. They've joined forces with the U.S. Human Rights Network as part of a U.S. delegation to Geneva, Switzerland for this month's United Nations review of the federal government's compliance with the International Convention to Eliminate all forms of Racial Discrimination, or CERD.

Though the U.S. government has not signed onto the option in CERD that would allow groups or individuals to petition, there is an urgent action procedure, where groups can submit written petitions to CERD in order to prevent existing situations from escalating into conflicts or to respond to problems requiring immediate attention to prevent or limit the scale or number of serious violations of the Convention.

Fulton and Davis hope to use this aspect of the Convention to help shine light on the kinds of racially charged killings in the U.S. that took their children's lives, and more recently, the life of Eric Garner.

“The only way they’re going to get (the federal government) off their behinds is if we go to the world court, look at the United Nations, air their dirty laundry, embarrass them and let them know that, ‘You have to give us our civil rights. You have to give us our human rights.’ That’s the only way we’re going to do something in this day and time,” Davis told AlterNet in an interview.

Some of the key passages germane to civil rights issues in the U.S. fall under Article 5: "(i)the rights to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, to protection against unemployment, to equal pay for equal work, to just and favourable remuneration," (ii) The right to form and join trade unions," "(iii) The right to housing," (iv) The right to public health, medical care, social security and social services"

Sybrina Fulton insists the effort to inform the American public of the Convention is worth it and can be used to address shootings like her son's.

“There are other organizations out there, but I think CERD focuses more on what we need, which is human rights,” Fulton told AlterNet. “So it’s a matter of just making sure that people are aware of what CERD does and aware of how they can help and what capacity. Even if we talk to 100 people and 10 of then actually get it, well, that’s 10 people who didn’t know what CERD did, so that becomes a conversation.”

To better understand what issues can be addressed under CERD, which the United States ratified in 1994, here are some of the unjust practices and legal outcomes Americans need to consider when thinking of the country’s human rights record.

1. Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman Found Not Guilty Of Killing Unarmed Teenagers

Zimmerman walked up to Trayvon Martin on Feb. 16, 2012 while the boy was walking to his father’s home in Sanford, Fla. The two got into a scuffle and it ended with Martin taking a fatal bullet to the chest. Zimmerman was arrested one month later, sparking arguments from many who felt the death of a white teenager would have ledto a quicker law enforcement response. A jury found Zimmerman not guity.

The Zimmerman verdict forced Americans to take a serious look at stand-your-ground laws in Florida; though the law was not invoked during the trial, the wording "had the right to stand his ground" was clearly listed in the judge's guidelines (page 12) for the jury's decision.

Michael Dunn, 47, drove into a gas station in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 23, 2012 when he heard, according to CNN, loud “crap music” from a red Dodge Durango with four teenagers in it. Dunn shot into the vehicle after an altercation with the youths, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Though Dunn was convicted of attempted murder, there was a mistrial on the first-degree murder charge. Dunn claimedhe was defending himself, fearing that Davis was carrying a gun (he wasn’t). (Stand-your-ground was not invoked in the Dunn trial either, but the law complicated jury deliberations.)

The ruling brought into question how easy it is for Americans, especially in Florida, to purchase weapons and carry them freely anywhere. More critically, it revealed glaring racial disparities over the way shooters and victims have been treated in the criminal justice system. The Tampa Bay Times found "’that people who killed a black person walked free 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time.”

2. Rekia Boyd

On March 21, 2012, 22-year-old Rekia Boyd was near Douglas Park, in Chicago, with three friends when Dante Servin, an off-duty cop, confronted them over loud music coming from a house party he claimed they were attending. After one of the males in the group told Servin to ‘’move the fuck on,’’ the cop claimed the man reached for a weapon and began shooting at the group. Boyd, who was not armed, was fatally shot in the back of the head fleeing the scene. Antonio Cross was actually carrying a cell phone, not a weapon, prosecutors claim. Cross was wounded but survived.

It took more than year for Servin to be charged with involuntary manslaughter and other felony charges.

3. Death Penalty

While the European Union and most industrialized nations have banned the death penalty, the United States ranks in the top five countries that carried out executions in 2013, according to a recent report by the Guardian. More than 75 percent of the murder victims in cases ending with executions were white, even though nationally only 50 percent of murder victims are generally white, according to deathpenaltyinfo.org. Think Progress reports that, of the 30 executions performed in 2013, the majority of victims were white.

These glaring racial disparities reveal a disturbing pattern that should force Americans to evaluate our criminal justice system.

“The U.S. government promotes itself as a human rights beacon, and based on that standing, has a lot of leverage in international forums to promote human rights,” Ejim Dike, executive director of the U.S Human Rights Network, told AlterNet. “But, from the beginning of the modern human rights era, the U.S. has had serious human rights concerns and it does not want to be held accountable.” 

4. Voter ID laws

Though Republican claims of voter fraud and other electoral meltdowns has been thoroughly debunked, red-state legislatures have enacted scores of restrictive voting laws in recent years. These measures are designed to needlessly police the process to deter turnout in perceived Democratic strongholds. New laws, such as requiring tougher voter ID standards and fewer early voting options, have made it harder for many citizens to vote. This is especially true for blacks, Latinos, students and lower-income people who may not have the required documentation or easy ways to get it. 

5. Immigration Detention Centers ‘Employ’ Illegal Immigrants

Some 5,500 detainees work in American’s immigration detention centers for a dollar or less, according to a report by the New York Times. Some of these immigrants earn no money at all. Last year, more than 60,000 detainees worked in detention centers across the country

The Times report says: “The cheap labor, 13 cents an hour, saves the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some immigrants held at county jails work for free, or are paid with sodas or candy bars, while also providing services like meal preparation for other government institutions.”

Ejim Dike of the U.S Human Rights Network said that CERD would apply in this case, especially since the majority of immigrants serving time are people of color.

"The U.S., as a state party, is under an obligation to guarantee equality between citizens and non-citizens in the enjoyment of these rights to the extent recognized under international law, and that differential treatment based on citizenship or immigration status will constitute discrimination," she said.

Dike hopes the Convention, which is scheduled to take place August 13-14, will shine a light on America’s troubling civil rights record and inconsistent legal system. The U.S. has not faced serious punishment failing to abide by the convention but Dike says the embarrassment from showcasing America’s worst injustices on a world stage could be quite damaging.

“The U.S. government is never happy to have its dirty laundry aired publically,” she said. “That’s the leverage we will use.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.