2020 US Elections and Human Rights

The winners of the 2020 US national, state, and local elections will have the opportunity to pass laws and implement policies that will affect our lives for generations to come. Are the 2020 contenders making the commitments needed to fight our climate crisis? Do their policy positions uphold – or undermine – our rights to get health care, feed our children, and receive fair treatment from the officials responsible for keeping us safe? As election day draws near, Human Rights Watch and partners provide insight and analysis to help voters make sense of the human rights issues at stake and hold candidates to account.

US Elections 2020 - Racial Justice

Nicole Austin-Hillery, Executive Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch, reminds voters and policymakers that racial justice issues are human rights issues. From rethinking the role and presence of law enforcement in our communities to adequately addressing the legacy of slavery and racial discrmination through repair, reconciliation, and reinvestment, candidates in the 2020 US Elections should look to prioritize racial justice issues in public forums as well as their policy platforms. 

US Elections 2020 – Racial Justice

From rethinking the role and presence of law enforcement in our communities to adequately addressing the legacy of slavery and racial discrmination through repair, reconciliation, and reinvestment, candidates in the 2020 US Elections should look to prioritize racial justice issues in public forums as well as their policy platforms. 

Amnesty International USA to Host Presidential Candidate Forum on Asylum and Immigration Issues

Twenty-four hours after yesterday’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, White House contenders will once again stand in front of cameras and a live audience to address voters’ concerns – this time at an event specifically about immigration.

On Thursday, February 20, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), alongside several partner organizations, will host a presidential candidate forum in Las Vegas on asylum and immigration to ask candidates tough and necessary questions on issues that warrant thoughtful and humane solutions.

Moderated by BuzzFeed News’ Hamed Aleaziz, the forum will be livestreamed for viewers across the world, and viewers can submit questions on immigration policy that they’d like candidates to answer.

The AIUSA forum follows last week’s release of their policy blueprint for key domestic and foreign issues ahead of the 2020 US presidential election. The blueprint tracks issues and makes recommendations on human rights-related issues, ranging from the Russian government’s abusive policing practices targeting the LGBT community to America’s gun violence epidemic.

Live from the Field: Safety First for Asylum Seekers

In its latest attempt to destroy asylum, the Trump administration has sent more than 600 Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers, including over 250 children, to Guatemala as part of an Asylum Cooperative Agreement after detaining them for up to 12 days in frigid border jails.

While in Customs Border Protection (CBP) custody, asylum seekers are not given meaningful access to attorneys, and they reported several agents cursed and yelled at them, never let them go outside, never turned the lights off, and never gave them a fair chance to have their asylum claims heard. By the time they arrive in Guatemala, asylum seekers are sleep deprived, hungry, sick, and massively traumatized. They are told they have 72 hours to decide between seeking asylum there or going back home to the countries they fled but face many of the same dangers in Guatemala as they did in their home countries. Very few have selected either option, and no one can be sure exactly where the majority of those expelled to Guatemala have gone. Guatemala is not a safe third country, and the United States should immediately stop sending vulnerable asylum seekers there. 

HRW US Border Researcher, Ariana Sawyer, speaks from Guatemala where she is investigating the harms and conditions asylum seekers are enduring. 

In 2020, a Chance to Commit the US to Human Rights

The coming elections will help determine the extent to which the United States seeks to uphold human rights, equal protection of the law, and the stated values of “liberty and justice for all.”

The United States has a long way to go before it is truly a nation where everyone can live in dignity; speak out and have families as they please; put sufficient food on the table; send their kids to a decent school; see a doctor without fear of financial ruin; and feel safe in their own skin. Too many people across America confront systemic racism, exclusion and discrimination, and too few have a fair and meaningful say in how they are governed. Overseas, US influence is too often squandered – instead of being used as a force for good. Damaging polices at home find parallels in policies abroad. 

Human rights are not abstract ideas that apply only to “other people.” Human rights are as real as the humiliation experienced by the veteran arrested for being homeless, or the 10-year-old with Down Syndrome whom US border patrol agents forcibly separated from her mother. Like the bones in our bodies, our human rights can be a source of severe pain when trampled.

Whoever earns the trust of voters has an opportunity – and a responsibility – to help the country move forward by making human rights a priority. A commitment to upholding human rights is a commitment to making tangible policy decisions to ensure that the bodies, zip codes, and circumstances into which we happen to have been born do not dampen our prospects for a better life.

A 2020 candidate who respects human rights will work to build bridges of understanding around issues of race, color and ethnicity rather than sow divisions that permit white nationalism and other expressions of hate to grow. They will see the connections between discrimination at home and injustice abroad.

A candidate who respects human rights will commit to making health care affordable for everyone, and will oppose efforts to curtail access to medical and other services for women, people living in poverty, people with disabilities, and LGBT people.

A rights-respecting candidate will support the rights of workers, including to organize, receive a living wage, and enjoy safe working conditions.

A candidate who respects human rights will oppose a deterrence-only strategy toward migrants that has led to family separations, harsh detention conditions for children, and a dismantling of the US asylum and refugee system.

A rights-respecting candidate will have plans for reducing the number of people behind bars – many of whom are incarcerated because of racist laws and policies that have disproportionately affected black and brown communities for decades. And they will advance strategies for restoring rights to the millions of people who still cannot vote due to a patchwork of felony disfranchisement laws across the country.

They will end indefinite detention without charge or trial for the men held at Guantanamo Bay, commit to fair trials for all, and seek accountability and redress for past use of torture in the name of national security.

A candidate who respects human rights will ensure that US action abroad promotes and protects human rights, rather than diminishes them. Instead of cozying up to dictators and autocrats, a candidate who respects human rights will instead seek international partners who commit to upholding human rights obligations--and will seek to hold to account those who violate them. They will commit to promoting human rights at the United Nations and other international forums, particularly for refugees and other marginalized people of the world.

In any military action, they will protect civilians and abide strictly by the requirements of international humanitarian law.

These are just some of the human rights issues that hang in the balance in this election cycle. Through November and beyond, Human Rights Watch will help voters, journalists, and others navigate the news and examine some of the most pressing human rights issues of the day – from the consequences of poverty and inequality, to the breakneck expansion of digital surveillance, to the mandate for racial justice.

The present moment is an opportunity for voters to consider how human rights can shape a future of peace, prosperity, and dignity for all. It is also an opportunity for candidates to consider what their policy platforms and rhetoric on human rights – as well as their silence –say about the world they want us to live in.

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director 
Human Rights Watch 
Nicole Austin-Hillery, Executive Director, US Program 
Human Rigths Watch 

US Representatives Join Calls to End Harmful 'Remain in Mexico' Program

During a February 15th "Coffee With Your Congressman" event featuring U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, two members from the Iowa City Catholic Worker House, along with Juliza Aguilar, a refugee from El Salvador, publicly confronted Loebsack about a policy that has torn Aguilar’s family apart.
As reported by the Quad-City Times: “The women said they wanted to know why Loebsack had not added his signature to the list of 112 House Democrats who signed a letter addressed to Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, demanding the Remain in Mexico program be stopped and that asylum seekers be granted a fair process.”
Since January 2019, the US government has expelled nearly 60,000 people –  including 16,000 children – to live in dangerous Mexican border cities under what is commonly known as the “Remain in Mexico” program. This program forces families and individuals seeking asylum in the US to wait while their asylum requests are processed, without access to legal support or representation, as well as lack of access to shelter, food, water and other necessities.
Families and individuals are at risk of sexual assault, violence and kidnapping in the increasingly hostile and ill-prepared cities that they’re expelled to, as documented by a Human Rights Watch investigative report earlier this month.
Human Rights Watch calls on Congress to end the “Remain in Mexico” program. 
For more information on ‘Remain in Mexico,” take a look at this Human Rights Watch Q&A.

Voting for Human Rights: A Guide for 2020

The presidential debates and other public forums happening across the US this month and until election day offer an opportunity to assess where candidates stand on some of the most pressing human rights issues of our time.  We put together a voters guide to help you determine whether the platforms and rhetoric of 2020 contenders promote protection from abusive systems, officials, individuals, and corporations, and support equal protection of the law.

Whether you’re watching this week’s televised debate or attending an upcoming candidate event, reference the voters guide as a springboard to ask yourself – and the people vying for your votes – some essential questions about their vision for America.


In every election, human rights matter. From local schoolboard elections to presidential ones, voters have the chance to choose candidates who will fight for all people’s human rights, not work to undermine them. In the upcoming 2020 United States elections, fundamental human rights are at stake – like health care, a decent school for your kids, equal treatment at work regardless of how you look or who you love, a fair trial whether you are rich or poor, and the freedom to worship (or not). As candidates seek your vote, make sure they’re putting basic human rights front and center.

What does it mean to be a human rights voter?

Support candidates who want the government to adopt and enforce laws that promote and protect human rights. This means candidates who defend people from abusive systems, officials, individuals, and corporations, who support equal protection of the law, and who will push for policies that enable everyone to have the same opportunities to pursue their fundamental rights.

Poverty and Inequality

People walk around the neighboring streets around the Fred Jordan Mission, in Los Angeles, California, U.S. May 12, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

We all have a right to the highest attainable standard of health, to housing, and to an adequate standard of living. About 40 million people in the United States live in poverty, even though many have jobs making at least minimum wage. A human rights voter should back candidates who work to ensure that everyone can get quality medical care, a safe and sturdy roof over their heads, and enough healthy food to eat.

Candidates should urge measures that would prevent companies from preying on the poor. For instance, they should support stronger regulation of predatory lending industries that offer high interest loans, often carrying triple-digit interest rates, that by design lead low-income borrowers into cyclical debt traps and greater poverty.

Questions for candidates:

- Do you support reforms that protect the right of everyone to just and fair work conditions, including a fair wage, that enables them to support their families?

- Will you oppose rollbacks to programs that support individuals’ basic health, nutrition, and housing needs?

- How will you ensure universal access to adequate health care?

- How will you ensure that people are protected from predatory lenders and abusive debt collectors?

Criminal Legal System

The front gate is pictured at the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York April 8, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

We need to vastly reduce the number of people behind bars in the US – many of whom are incarcerated because of racist laws and policies that have disproportionately affected black and brown communities for decades. Candidates should support the decriminalization of drug use and possession, and an end to disproportionate or cruel sentences, including the death penalty; the use of prolonged solitary confinement, especially for children; the use of pretrial detention only in exceptional cases; and discriminatory money bail.

Questions for candidates:

- Do you support decriminalizing drug possession and use?

- Do you support greater access to evidence-based treatment for substance abuse?

- Will you work to end excessive sentencing? 

- Do you support restoring the right to vote to millions of formerly incarcerated Americans?

- How will you hold law enforcement agencies accountable for excessive use of force and unlawful police killings?

Racial Discrimination

Demonstrators gather outside City Hall to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S., March 30, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters

Racial discrimination is a serious human rights problem in the United States – from thecriminal legal system and health and housing policies that disproportionately harm Black and Latinx people, to the surveillance of specific groups, such as Muslims or political activists from ethnic or religious minorities, to immigration policies that scapegoat non-citizens as criminals or subject asylum seekers and refugees to disparate treatment based on their national origin. Many of the discriminatory policies that disproportionately impact African Americans and the more general racial and economic discrimination that continues today are legacies of slavery. Candidates should support a congressional commission to develop a proposal to provide reparations for slavery, and the acts of murder, torture, rape, and other violence that accompanied it and continued long after its formal abolition.

Questions for candidates:

- How will you address racial barriers to affordable housing, adequate health care, and equal protection of the law?

- Do you support creating a commission to study how to account for and provide reparations for slavery and its enduring impact?

Women's Rights

People rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court while the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra case remained pending, in Washington, U.S., June 25, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

The US government should promote policies, practices, and laws seeking gender equality, because many women and girls have been left out of US successes so far, especially women of color, women with disabilities, Indigenous women, and female immigrants. Voters, no matter their gender, benefit when women in society do well. They should support candidates who back efforts to ensure women get the health care they need and oppose measures to limit treatment and access to contraception and abortion care. Systemic racism, economic and immigration status, and where a woman lives can make accessing even available health care difficult. Candidates should support efforts to target those most marginalized by the current healthcare system. Candidates should work to preserve progress to end violence against women and push for modern workforce policies including paid family leave, including to care for aging loved ones, measures to end the gender wage gap, and improving laws protecting pregnant women and banning sexual harassment.

Questions for candidates:

- What is your position on new regulations that limit women’s access to contraception, allow medical providers to discriminate against them, and block federally funded health providers from giving them information?

- Do you support paid family leave? How would you implement a program?

- Do you support legislative efforts to target and address racial disparities in women’s health outcomes, including the Jeannette Acosta Invest in Women’s Health Act?

- What measures should be taken to protect access to abortion information and services?  


Immigrants attempt to enter the US between Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, on April 29, 2019. Family apprehensions in El Paso area have topped about 60,000 individuals, an increase of 1,670%, up from about 3,000 last year, according to officials. 

© 2019 Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

People fleeing their homes in search of safety have a right to seek asylum, and the US has a long history of helping refugees. Immigrants provide huge economic and social benefits to communities across the nation. Candidates should oppose a deterrence-only strategy toward migrants that has led to family separations, harsh detention conditions for adults and children, and a dismantling of the US asylum and refugee system. Candidates should seek to limit excessive surveillance and data collection to enforce the border and should support reform of an immigration system that resulted in serious abuses under previous US administrations.

Questions for candidates:

- Will you oppose requests for additional immigration funds without fundamental policy reform?

- What steps would you take to protect refugees and asylum seekers?

- Will you end the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” a program that is exposing tens of thousands of asylum seekers to danger in Mexico and injustice in US immigration courts?

- What will you do to ensure all immigrants facing deportation get a fair hearing before a judge?

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Rights

LGBT Rainbow Flag 

© 2008 Ludovic Berton (Wikimedia Commons)

We should work to end discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Candidates should support the Equality Act, which would ban employers, landlords, schools, and others from discriminating against people because they are LGBT. They should support efforts to promote equality, including improving access to health care and addressing violence against transgender people, particularly trans people of color. They should oppose laws and policies that encourage discrimination, including sweeping “religious exemptions” that allow states and businesses to discriminate against LGBT people.

Questions for candidates:

- Do you support the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity?

- How would you address the transgender military ban?

- How would you address violence against transgender people in the US?

- What is your position on religious exemptions that allow employers, landlords, service providers, and business owners to refuse service to LGBT people based on moral or religious convictions?

Privacy, Data Protection, Digital Rights

A 3D-printed Facebook Like symbol is displayed in front of a U.S. flag in this illustration taken, March 18, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

Digital rights in the US are at a critical juncture: social media and other companies are vacuuming up vast amounts of personal information about us, yet Congress has not adopted comprehensive data protection laws. Barely regulated technologies affect everyone, including immigrants and schoolchildren. The US government wields massive secret surveillance powers, often with little oversight by Congress or the courts. Candidates should oppose surveillance that may disproportionately harm people of color, such as facial recognition, and rhetoric that stokes fear of Muslims.

Questions for candidates:

- What would you do to create stronger data protection rules for companies and the government?

- Do you support an end to warrantless surveillance programs?

- Do you support safeguards to limit the use of facial recognition software and other emerging technologies that could harm rights?

Climate Crisis and Toxic Pollution

Aerial view of a mountaintop mine in West Virginia.

© 2018 Mariam Dwedar for Human Rights Watch, flight provided by South Wings

Candidates should support policies that protect the human rights of people marginalized or otherwise most affected by climate change and toxic pollution. The global climate crisis means that Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and areas along the eastern US seaboard in particular will face increasingly severe extreme weather events.

Deregulation of health and environmental protections from mining pollution poses a serious danger to poor communities. Similarly, preventing bans of toxic pesticides will continue to put people, especially pregnant women and children, at risk. The independence of federally funded scientific research should be respected, and evidence-based regulations that mitigate the risks of climate change and toxic pollution should be enacted.

Questions for candidates:

- What is your plan to address climate change? How would you improve the US response to extreme weather events, particularly for low-income and marginalized communities?

- Will you commit to respect the independence of federally funded scientific research and enact evidence-based regulations that mitigate the risks of climate change, pollution, and toxic exposures?

- What will you do to make sure that companies responsible for coal-related pollution bear the costs of the clean-up?

- Will you create and enforce pesticide policies that are protective of pregnant women, children, and other groups at greater risk of exposure complications?

- Will you ensure compliance with relevant standards under the Food Quality Protection Act by demonstrating that there is a reasonable certainty a pesticide will not cause harm before approving or renewing its use?

National Security

In this photo reviewed by U.S. military officials, a U.S. flag is displayed on the control tower of the Camp VI detention facility, Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba.

© 2019 AP Photo

The US government has frequently invoked national security as a justification for human rights violations. To date, there has been no real accounting of past practices, including torture. Candidates should commit to real accountability for US government-sanctioned torture and ill-treatment, including support for declassifying the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program.

Candidates should commit to increasing transparency around the use of lethal force abroad, including by intelligence agencies, and ensuring that civilians unlawfully harmed by US forces receive prompt and appropriate redress. Candidates should commit to ensuring that US personnel implicated in war crimes are fully and fairly prosecuted.

Since early 2002, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has held people in indefinite detention, most without charge or trial. Those being prosecuted face fatally flawed military commissions. Candidates should commit to shuttering the Guantanamo facility and ensuring that there is due process for the detainees who remain there, whether in a court in the US or by transfer to a third country.

Questions for candidates:

- Will you increase transparency around the use of force by the US with the aim of reducing civilian casualties, abiding by the laws of war, including the impartial investigation and prosecution of personnel implicated in war crimes, and compensating civilians unlawfully harmed by US forces?

- Will you permanently close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and end indefinite detention without charge or trial?

- Will you commit to declassifying and releasing the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on the use of torture and enhanced interrogation techniques by the CIA following 9/11?

Foreign Policy

Flags fly outside the United Nations headquarters during the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Jennifer Peltz

The next president should reassert a leading US role in the promotion and protection of human rights abroad. The US should return to the United Nations Human Rights Council and other international human rights forums and processes. The US should also recommit to upholding its human rights obligations and adopting a principled, human-rights driven approach to engagement with the world. This means seeking international partners who commit to upholding their human rights obligations and seeking to hold to account those who violate them.

The United States should commend countries for supporting human rights and should work with other countries to hold rights-violating governments, allies, and foes alike to account. It is particularly important to seek candidates who commit to promoting and protecting human rights central to US foreign policy. Candidates should agree to adopt a range of public and private measures to pressure repressive governments to uphold the rights to expression, assembly, and privacy, sexual and reproductive health, rights of LGBT people, freedom of religion, rights of refugees and asylum seekers, and justice for grave international crimes.

Questions for candidates:

- Will you commit to making the protection and promotion of human rights central to US foreign policy?

- Will you support a permanent repeal of the “Global Gag rule” and ensure that US aid does not undermine comprehensive health care for anyone, in particular women, girls, and LGBT and gender non-conforming people around the world?

- Will you ensure US policy demonstrates commitment to resettlement and protection for refugees?

- Will you commit to rejoining the United Nations Human Rights Council?

- Do you commit to support and cooperate with the International Criminal Court?