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Dispatches: How to Improve Human Rights in the US
April 28, 2014

Yesterday, at a joint press conference in Kuala Lampur with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, President Obama was asked by a reporter to rate Malaysia’s progress on human rights issues. “Malaysia has still got some work to do,” was his response, “Just like the United States, by the way, has some work to do on these issues. Human Rights Watch probably has a list of things they think we should be doing as a government.”

We do. For over two decades, we have been pushing the United States to not only approach human rights as foreign policy instrument, but to fully commit to human rights at home. Here is a partial list (for more detail, see here):

  • In the realm of national security, the United States needs to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, which remains a blot on the US’s human rights record; provide fair trials before civilian courts of all terrorism suspects; publicly disclose criteria for targeted killings; and ensure that all US lethal force operations comply with international law. And in the wake of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations, the US government should end indiscriminate collection of electronic information including metadata, strengthen privacy protections for the rights of foreigners abroad, increase transparency in decision making about surveillance, and better protect whistleblowers.
  • On criminal justice, the federal government and the states need to build on recent reforms to reduce excessively harsh punishment, including inherently cruel sentences such as the death penalty, disproportionately long sentences set by mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes like drug offenses, and the unfair use of adult trials and punishment against youth offenders; and address the unsafe and inhumane conditions of confinement faced by many prisoners in the US.
  • There is serious work to do to confront discrimination as well, including changing a host of criminal justice policies that either by purpose or effect discriminate unjustly on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics. For example, although whites and blacks use and sell drugs at comparable rates, blacks are arrested and incarcerated on drug charges that greatly exceed their proportion of the general population and among drug offenders (both users and sellers). On health, it must do more to end the disproportionate impact of the HIV epidemic on minority communities, particularly in the South. 
  • Last, since 1990, the US government has detained and deported over four million immigrants under laws that overuse detention and largely disregard the bonds of family and community. The US government needs to fix the nation’s broken and unfair immigration system, under which millions of immigrants in recent years have been detained and deported, splitting families and tearing people from their communities. The US also needs to stop prosecuting as criminals and imprisoning migrants with minor or no criminal records before deporting them, especially since too often it is people who are merely seeking to reunite with their families or find shelter from persecution who are prosecuted. The US should offer its millions of unauthorized immigrants an effective legalization process that respects families, protects people from abuses and crimes, and acknowledges the contributions of long-term residents to US society.

So, yes, President Obama, the United States has “some work to do” to better protect basic rights at home. We hope this list can help get things started.