US: Slow Progress on Human Rights
High-Level Pronouncements Marred by Systemic Racism, Abuse of Asylum Seekers
"The Biden administration has made some big-picture pronouncements on key issues like racial and gender equity with little evidence so far that the words will translate into real impact for people whose rights have been systematically and historically ignored or trampled," said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US Program executive director at Human Rights Watch. “Black people in the United States still suffer from significant economic disparities stemming from systemic racism that have impacts across generations, and border policies have shredded the right to seek asylum while officials subject migrants to violent, abusive treatment.”
In the 752-page World Report 2022, its 32nd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. Executive Director Kenneth Roth challenges the conventional wisdom that autocracy is ascendent. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot, showing that the appeal of democracy remains strong. Meanwhile, autocrats are finding it more difficult to manipulate elections in their favor. Still, he says, democratic leaders must do a better job of meeting national and global challenges and of making sure that democracy delivers on its promised dividends.
In addition to executive branch policies and actions to achieve racial and gender equity and protect LGBT people’s rights, the US House Judiciary Committee voted to move H.R. 40, a bill to study the provision of reparations for slavery, to the full House for a vote for the first time in 32 years. But at the end of 2021, this landmark step toward reparations for the legacy of slavery has stalled in the House.
Among the rights failures in US domestic policy linked to systemic racism, despite some reductions in incarceration rates for Black people, they remain vastly overrepresented in jails and prisons. Black people are killed by police at a per capita rate that is three times the rate of white people. Black people still make up almost 42 percent of the current death row population despite being only 12.4 percent of the US population.
Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities have been disproportionately harmed by Covid-19, which has deepened existing racial disparities in health care, housing, access to safe and affordable water, employment, education, and wealth accumulation, Human Rights Watch said. Economic inequality remains high and has slightly increased in the United States, although poverty dropped largely due to increased government benefits. The wealth gap between Black people and white people persists.
The Biden administration has also kept in place the harmful Title 42 border policy, under which it expels asylum seekers to unsafe conditions in Mexico or their home countries on specious public health grounds. In a particularly grievous example of the policy, US Border Patrol agents on horseback menaced Haitian border crossers in Del Rio, Texas in September, and the United States then summarily expelled thousands of Haitians to dangerous conditions in Haiti.
Human Rights Watch reported on other evidence of abusive treatment of asylum seekers by US border officials as described in Department of Homeland Security documents obtained after litigation. The documents catalog over 160 internal reports of physical and other abuses of asylum seekers as well as violations of their due process rights.
In its foreign policy, the administration announced its commitment to “putting human rights at the center of US foreign policy” and to multilateralism. The US sought – and won – election to the UN Human Rights Council and rejoined the Paris Climate Accord. It rescinded the harmful Global Gag rule on funding for women’s health care, reinstated funding to the UN Population Fund, and reintroduced reporting on reproductive rights in the State Department’s annual human rights report.
But significant failures to protect and promote human rights include continued arms sales to governments violating international human rights and humanitarian law including the Philippines, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and failing to publicly condemn rights abuses by perceived strategic partners.
The Biden administration should end the abusive and illegal Title 42 policy and take concrete actions and robustly report on progress aligned with its policy pronouncements on racial and gender equity. State and local governments in the US should end abusive policing of Black people and other people of color and instead invest in communities in ways that address structural racism. State policies threatening the right to access to abortion and reproductive freedom should end in order to fully protect the rights of women and girls.
“The US government needs to take bold and concrete actions to protect the human rights of all people in the United States – Black and white, citizen and noncitizen alike, as well as to promote human rights globally through its foreign policy,” Austin-Hillery said.
(c) 2022, Human Rights Watch