Civil Liberties

U.S. Commits, Lies About Domestic Human Rights Violations

Human rights violations taint almost every social sector in the U.S.
The Geneva conventions aren't the only humanitarian standards the United States ignores. Under the Bush administration, the United States routinely commits human rights violations within its borders, according to a new report by the U.S. Human Rights Network.

The USHRN, a coalition of over 250 social justice and human rights organizations, published its report to challenge the findings of a self-assessment the U.S. government filed with the U.N. Committee on Ending Discrimination (CERD) last April.

The United States ratified human rights standards from the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in 1994 (meaning they have the force of domestic law), but according to the USHRN, has failed to live up to them.

The picture of human rights within the United States is bleak. Blacks and Latino/as constitute over 60 percent of the incarcerated, while only making up a quarter of the general population. Youth of color are overrepresented in juvenile detention centers and are disproportionately tried and sentenced as adults. Once out of prison, formerly incarcerated persons are often denied access to public housing, voting rights and financial aid for post-secondary education -- all crucial elements for reintegrating them back into community life.

Minorities also face rampant labor discrimination. Nonwhites are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be stuck in low-wage, dead-end jobs. People of color are likewise overrepresented in dirty or dangerous industries such as food service and manufacturing.

Such racial disparities taint almost every social sector. Public transportation, education, healthcare and even the housing market are all rife with abuse. For example, in housing disputes between landlords and tenants in New York, almost all landlords have legal representation, while only about one in eight tenants do. Most of these unrepresented tenants are low-income women of color who have limited resources to hire representation.

In stark contrast to these sad realities, the U.S. government's report understates, skews or ignores the facts about domestic human rights abuses.

"Our analysis reveals that the Bush administration is utterly out of touch with the reality of racial discrimination in America," said Ajamu Baraka, the executive director of USHRN, in a statement. "From failing to address the chronic persistence of structural racism to even acknowledging the disparate racial impact on people of color of Hurricane Katrina, the State Department report reads like a fantasy; unfortunately, a fantasy that is too often experienced as a nightmare for Americans of color."

The U.S. report limits its analysis of Katrina to one paragraph beginning with:

"Concern has been expressed about the disparate effects of Hurricane Katrina on housing for minority residents of New Orleans. Recognizing the overlap between race and poverty in the United States, many commentators conclude nonetheless that the post-Katrina issues were the result of poverty (i.e., the inability of many of the poor to evacuate) rather than racial discrimination per se."

The U.S. government's argument is that as long as the law does not, on its face, mention race, then the law cannot be racist, even if its policies negatively affect communities of color.

USHRN's report was released beside polling data from social justice organization The Opportunity Agenda, which showed that 80 percent of Americans see human rights as crucial to a healthy nation. According to the poll, the public considers specific areas such as a quality public education, healthcare, and a living wage as an integral part of human rights. These mundane aspects are what Lisa Crooms, professor of law at Howard University and an author of the USHRN report, called the "ordinary human rights" that the U.S. government ignores on a regular basis.

USHRN's Baraka believes the human rights framework will yield success because it opens up the possibility of a "new kind of movement" that can "expose the contradictions of the system the way it's presently organized."

The USHRN report will be read alongside the U.S. government's self-assessment by the Committee in February of 2008, when they will determine whether or not the United States is in compliance with the agreement. Baraka expects they will conclude "the U.S. is in noncompliance" but he also hopes that the report will "motivate the U.S. to identify the gaps in protections, and to monitor levels of compliance on every level of government."

The strategy of holding the U.S. government accountable to international standards has deeper historical roots and perhaps also suggests the United States is not the vanguard of democracy that it purports to be. Professor Crooms said, "Back when Du Bois and Paul Robeson filed the first petitions before the U.N., they were positions that challenged Jim Crow in the U.S." The use of international law as a means to empower domestically marginalized people has strong implications in a global community. Such a strategy links the human rights abuses the U.S. government inflicts overseas with those that occur within its borders.
Alex Jung is an editorial fellow at AlterNet.