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Human rights in the US are worse than you think

From police shootings to voter suppression to arrests of asylum seekers, a new report finds US human rights are abysmal.

Black Lives Matter activists demonstrate in New York City to protest police brutality on July 9, 2016.
Black Lives Matter activists demonstrate in New York City to protest police brutality on July 9, 2016.
Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

A new report examining human rights in the United States and around the world has just been released, and its findings are disturbing: The US is doing abysmally in several key categories, including the right to freedom from extrajudicial killing, the right to participate in government, and the right to be safe from the state.

Of the 12 human rights categories, from press freedom to quality of life, measured by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative — a global nonprofit data analysis organization based in Wellington, New Zealand — there are several in which the US has “strikingly poor results,” according to the report’s authors.

It’s a worrying sign that for all its resources and reputation for democracy, the US is not doing all that well in the world when it comes to human rights.

In fact, when compared with five other high-income Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries the group looked at — Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, and the United Kingdom — the US performs worse than average on empowerment rights, such as the right to participate in government, and on the right to be safe from the state.

The troubling findings, however, are something HRMI co-founder K. Chad Clay called “not surprising” and not new. “We’re not seeing much evidence of a sea change between the Obama and Trump administrations,” said Clay, who is also a professor at the University of Georgia.

In other words, things in the US have been pretty bad for years, despite its developed, wealthy status.

America’s human rights record: discrimination, police shootings, and arrests of asylum seekers at the border

The report, released Thursday, looked at three broad categories of human rights globally: empowerment, safety from the state, and quality of life.

A group of experts, including human rights advocates from large organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as human rights lawyers and journalists, were surveyed to produce the first-of-its-kind examination of safety from the state and empowerment for 19 countries.

Separately, publicly available statistics from international databases were used to produce data for 170 countries on five categories of quality of life, which were paired with survey responses where available.

1) Empowerment

The empowerment category comprises three political and civil rights: the right to assembly and association; the right to opinion and expression; and the right to participate in government.

The US empowerment score was just 4.9 out of 10. This “tells us that many people in the U.S. are not enjoying their civil rights and political freedoms,” the report says.

Experts assigned the US a score of 5.2 on a scale of 1 to 10 for freedom of expression, with 10 being the best. Seventy percent of expert respondents said that journalists bear the brunt of risk, but about half of them also cited human rights advocates and people who protest or engage in nonviolent political activity as being at risk for having their right to free speech trampled on.

This category is damning for its view on discrimination. Experts unanimously put “people of particular races” at the top of its at-risk assessment, finding that people of color are least likely to have the right to participate in government.

That’s due in large part to voter suppression efforts in Southern Republican-led states, such as the passing of laws that restrict early voting, purge people from voter rolls, and require citizens to show ID — all of which disproportionately affect African Americans and people with disabilities, among others.

2) Safety from the state

This category involves what the report terms “physical integrity rights”: the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest, disappearance, execution, and torture.

When it comes to the right of freedom from execution, the US is only three places behind Saudi Arabia, a lowly stat that not everyone at HRMI expected, Clay said. In an age when the most of the rest of the world is renouncing or not enforcing the death penalty, several states in the US still execute prisoners, with 25 put to death in 2018, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

For extrajudicial killing, the US comes in a notorious third place, after Mexico and Brazil, particularly because of lethal force used by police against African Americans and other people of color. The last day of 2018 saw the 992nd police shooting that resulted in death — in this case, that of a man who was armed with a knife but was not fleeing — according to the Washington Post’s 2018 police shootings database.

In this category, respondents also stressed the deaths of children at the southern border and prisoners denied necessary medical care. Also included in the right to freedom from extrajudicial execution are civilian deaths caused by US drone strikes.

More than half of the report experts said that refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants are at risk for arbitrary arrest, and a quarter of them said refugees and asylum seekers are at risk for disappearance (a stat that includes incommunicado detention at the border). The number of experts that said immigrants are at risk for disappearance climbs to one-third of respondents.

Eighty percent of the report’s human rights experts cited refugees or asylum seekers as particularly at risk for torture, especially LGBTQ people seeking protection at the US border.

3) Quality of life

The quality of life category includes four economic and social rights: the right to food, education, health, housing, and work.

This is the only area in which it looks like the US is doing relatively well. The country scored 83 percent on the report’s quality-of-life index, which takes into account America’s resources as well as “how well it is using them to make sure its people’s Quality of Life rights are fulfilled.”

Still, to the HRMI report authors, this nice-looking number tells them that the US is only doing 83 percent of what it could be accomplishing with the country’s vast resources. That puts the country in the lower third of high-income nations.

“Since anything less than 100% indicates that a country is not meeting its current duty under international human rights law,” the report authors write, “our assessment is that the United States has some way to go to meet its immediate economic and social rights duty.”

Even more disturbingly, people of color fare extremely poorly on all the human rights measured. African Americans in particular were identified by experts as being particularly vulnerable to abuses of every single right measured.

Native Americans came next in terms of the risk of having their rights violated. After that came Latinx people, women and girls, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities, along with refugees and asylum seekers.

“On civil and political rights, the United States is the worst performing high-income democracy in our sample,” Clay said. “A global leader like the United States could surely do better.”

And despite the ongoing poor performance overall by the US, the report’s authors say that doesn’t mean nothing has shifted for the worse in terms of human rights under President Donald Trump.

In particular, the right to opinion and expression (as well as the right to freedom from arbitrary or political arrest and detention) has been most affected by policies and words from the Trump administration, Clay said.

With Trump in office, there has been “broad/diffuse self-censorship in response to statements and actions taken by the U.S. federal executive, some of which has been seen as encouraging legal action and/or violence against some,” the report says. The US Press Freedom Tracker, a collaboration between two dozen press freedom organizations, has documented 315 incidents dangerous to the media between 2017 and today.

Add together the growing number of press freedom violations with the ever-increasing reality of human rights abuses against refugees and asylum seekers, as well as African Americans — such as the right to freedom from arbitrary or political arrest and detention — and it would appear it is time to keep on our toes.

At least now we have a series of benchmarks from which to monitor.

Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, the Guardian, and more. Find her on Twitter at @Wolfe321.

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