Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Human Rights at Home

Human Rights Watch has just released World Report 2014, its annual report on the state of human rights in the world. While the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria features prominently in the report, there are a number of issues in the United States that raise concerns, including some that have marred the American human rights record for years.

According to the report, the United States has "by far the highest rate of imprisonment" in the world with 2.2 million people behind bars in adult prisons and jails. That number reflects harsh sentencing guidelines at both state and federal levels, including the use of mandatory life sentences for some crimes and the use in many jurisdictions of "three strikes" laws. The bottom line is a large--and aging--prison population that still reflects racial injustices owing in large part to wide differences in the rates of drug arrests and prosecutions among racial groups. The report notes that "African Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though their rates of marijuana use are roughly equivalent."

The criminal justice system continues to be stacked against the poor, according to Human Rights Watch. Many criminal defendants in the United States are unable to raise bail and thus are forced to remain in jail pending trial. Court fees have been raised in many states as part of attempts to make up for budget deficits; the burden of these fees often falls most heavily on poor defendants. The report even notes an increase in laws that criminalize certain aspects of poverty. For example, being behind on the rent can now lead to criminal prosecution in Arkansas.

The report states that about 400,000 non-citizens per year are being held in immigration detention centers. Hundreds are kept at various times in solitary confinement, a practice that often violates international human rights standards. And, in yet another sign of the need for immigration reform in the United States, illegal reentry has become the most commonly prosecuted of all federal crimes.

Guantanamo continues to generate questions about the United States' commitment to international human rights. World Report 2014 states, "The indefinite detention without charge or trial of detainees at Guantanamo Bay entered its twelfth year, with 162 detainees remaining at the facility. Eighty-two of them have been cleared for transfer to home or third countries by an inter-agency task force since 2009."

Regarding Edward Snowden, the report notes that "US law does not provide adequate legal protections or defenses for whistleblowers who disclose national security or intelligence information to the public, even on matters of pressing public importance." The NSA surveillance sweeps revealed by Snowden's leaks are criticized in the report.

Human Rights Watch provides a candid view of the state of human rights observance in the world, one that is especially valuable because of its impartiality. Americans are not accustomed to seeing their country's human rights record presented objectively, without the distortions imposed by a belief in American Exceptionalism. For this reason, World Report 2014 is something that all Americans should read--perhaps with contrition and a commitment to changing those aspects of our collective life that fall short of our ideals. As the former Czech playwright and president Vaclav Havel said before a joint session of Congress in 1990, "As long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always be no more than an ideal; one may approach it as one would a horizon, in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. In this sense you [Americans] are also merely approaching democracy."