• While the obligation of the government to protect the rights of those deprived of their liberty is clear, governmental failures to protect individuals who are not in custodial settings also raise human rights concerns. The United States has an international legal obligation to protect individuals from violence perpetrated by the state and by private actors. And when public officials such as border agents or police officers have the authority to use force, human rights standards require that it be used proportionally, and only when necessary. Unfortunately, either because abuse happens at the hands of public officials, or because public officials turn a blind eye to victims of private abuse, the United States sometimes fails those who seek and deserve government protection. In so doing, it violates basic human rights and erodes public safety by making it less likely that victims will seek justice when they believe they will be met with abusive treatment, inaction, or indifference.

  • (Left to right) Eleanor, Roxanne, and Marisa, who all reported sexual assaults to the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), stand in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
    Victims of sexual assault in Washington, DC are not getting the effective response they deserve and should expect from the district’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Sexual assault cases are too often not properly documented or investigated and victims may face callous, traumatizing treatment, despite official departmental policy to the contrary.


The Failure to Protect

  • Jan 12, 2015
    Human Rights Watch is writing in response to your announcement that the City of New Orleans would be forming an internal task force to review mishandled rape cases. We urge you to go further. Specifically, we ask that the task force become a permanent mechanism to ensure that investigations are being conducted properly, and that best practices continue to be implemented long after the media coverage has ceased, or, in the alternative, support a city ordinance that codifies best practices that have been proven to work in other cities. At a minimum, we ask that police no longer be allowed to monitor themselves.
  • Nov 20, 2014

    Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch received a letter from a woman who explained she had been brutally gang raped by strangers in an abandoned lot in Tulsa in 1971, when she was 12 years old. Though she had been literally torn open by the assault, she wrote that “the trauma of the event was nothing compared to the trauma she received afterwards at the hands of police.”  The policewoman she spoke to the next day yelled at her, called her a “little slut” and blamed her for upsetting her mother. After 43 years, the survivor wrote, she hardly thinks about the rape, but the policewoman’s words “still echo in my ears from time to time, often when I least expect it. It brings me to tears.”

  • Oct 27, 2014
    I write to follow up on my September 9, 2014 letter to you on behalf of Human Rights Watch, in which we urged that the state of Missouri undertake a comprehensive review of law enforcement responses to the protests that began on August 9 in Ferguson. Your recent announcement of the creation of the Ferguson Commission, a panel charged with studying the “the social and economic conditions underscored by the unrest in the wake of the death of Michael Brown,” left unclear whether the panel will address the many outstanding and serious questions about the police response to the protests.
  • Jul 25, 2014
    The United States has failed to comply with key protections under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), Human Rights Watch said today. The US, which ratified the treaty in 1994, will appear before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for a periodic review of its record on August 13 and 14, 2014, in Geneva.
  • Jul 24, 2014
    The public debate over the recent surge in child migrants across the US border with Mexico should spur Congress to reform US immigration policy, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a multimedia feature jointly with Time magazine and Platon/The People’s Portfolio.
  • Jun 25, 2014
    The United States government’s policy of detaining unaccompanied migrant children, some for long periods, and providing inadequate processing puts them in harm’s way. On June 24, 2014, the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on unaccompanied migrant children – children traveling without parents or guardians. Later today, the House Judiciary Committee will also hold a hearing on the issue.
  • May 8, 2014
    Each week seems to bring news of sexual assaults being handled badly by college campuses across the country. I just received an email from my own alma mater, Brown University, reassuring its alumni that the attacker in a recent case will not, in fact, be returning to campus in the fall. It did so after the survivor, unhappy with how the school handled her case, went public.
  • May 6, 2014
    Far too many US laws violate basic principles of justice by requiring disproportionately severe punishment, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
  • Apr 25, 2014
    Revelations that the Tallahassee Police Department may have failed to adequately investigate rape complaints, including one against a Florida State football star, unfortunately come as no surprise. Even when the suspect is not a local hero, police throughout the country too often fail to pursue cases that do not fit outdated stereotypes of “real” rape, particularly if the victim has been drinking.
  • Apr 9, 2014
    A bill making its way through the DC Council would be a significant step toward improving police response to sexual assault in the District of Columbia. The DC Council unanimously approved the bill, which adopts recommendations Human Rights Watch has been making for over a year, on April 8, 2014. It is scheduled for a second vote on May 6. If passed, it would go to DC Mayor Vincent Grey for his signature.