US Election and Human Rights

The 2016 US presidential election has generated a great deal of debate on human rights issues—from torture to paid family leave, immigration to policing—on which Human Rights Watch has been working for years.  In the lead-up to the vote, our experts will examine some of the key issues being debated, as well as others that should be top priorities for the next president.

The US’s Faltering Leadership on Encryption

One year ago today, more than 100,000 people signed a petition asking the Obama administration to publicly support strong encryption and encourage governments around the world to follow suit.

With just weeks left in his term in office, President Obama has failed  to act, leaving a dangerous vacuum in leadership on encryption globally, which the next president must fill.

An Apple iPhone 6 is seen on display at the Apple store on 5th Avenue in the Manhattan borough of New York City, July 21, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

Human rights defenders, journalists, and hundreds of millions of ordinary Internet users rely on encryption to shield them from surveillance and cybercriminals. To protect users, companies like Apple and WhatsApp have begun to roll out encryption on their services so that even the companies cannot access our data.

For two years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has demonized these companies, arguing that the encryption protections have made it more difficult to investigate terrorism and other serious crimes. The FBI wants access to all encrypted messages, even if that means forcing tech firms to build so-called “back doors” into encryption that weaken cybersecurity for all users. While the Obama administration announced in 2015 it would not call for legislation requiring what the FBI sought, the issue erupted again when a US judge ordered Apple to hack an encrypted iPhone in February 2016.

Though the FBI was eventually able to access the phone’s data without Apple’s help, the case was followed closely worldwide. France, Germany, China, Russia, Brazil, and India are among the many states who are considering their approach to encryption, and the US’s position will set an important global precedent.

Both presidential candidates have raised the issue of encryption, but the details of their positions – and their implications for both privacy and security – are far from clear. Donald Trump criticized Apple for refusing the FBI’s demand and called for a boycott of their products. He has also stated that the US should “clos[e] parts of the Internet” used by ISIS, and “penetrate the Internet” to gather intelligence about the group. Trump has not explained how he would accomplish these goals.

Hillary Clinton rejects a false choice between privacy interests and keeping Americans safe,” and supports creating a “national commission on digital security and encryption.” She previously stated that she wouldn’t legally compel companies to build back doors, but called for a “Manhattan-like project” with the tech sector to find a solution. She has also proposed an “intelligence surge” to bolster counterterrorism efforts, and wants Internet companies to cooperate in monitoring social media. 

The next president should not ignore the near-unanimous agreement among digital security experts that encryption back doors weaken cybersecurity while failing to keep encryption out of the hands of determined criminals. Instead, he or she should bolster the US’s leadership on digital rights and promote strong encryption worldwide.

Farmworker Children and Nicotine Exposure: Time for a Ban

Every year in the United States, children face danger working on tobacco farms, including nicotine poisoning, pesticide exposure, heat illness, and injuries. But you wouldn’t know that from the current presidential contest, where the long-standing need to address the issue of hazardous child labor has barely registered with the candidates.

It’s a straightforward issue President Barack Obama has failed to address, and one that the next US president should make a priority.

Many voters would be surprised to learn that US labor law allows children as young as 12, and sometimes even younger, to work long hours as hired farm laborers.

My colleagues and I have documented the hazards these children face – pesticide exposure, heat stroke, and injuries from using sharp tools and dangerous machinery or lifting heavy loads. Children working on tobacco farms face the added risk of nicotine exposure. When child workers handle tobacco plants, they absorb nicotine through their skin. Many children suffer nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness while they work – symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. The long-term effects of the poisoning have not been studied, but research on smoking suggests nicotine exposure in childhood and adolescence may have lasting impacts on brain development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for prohibiting children under 18 from work on tobacco farms because of the risk of nicotine exposure.

The Obama administration had the chance to fix this problem. In 2011, the US Department of Labor introduced new regulations that would have banned work on tobacco farms. But the administration withdrew the regulations after backlash from agricultural lobbying groups, in what the Washington Post editorial board called a “pathetic retreat.”

Earlier this week, 47 members of Congress, led by Representative David Cicilline (D-RI), wrote a letter to President Obama urging the administration to ban child labor in tobacco fields before the end of his term. Representative Cicilline and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced legislation in 2015 calling for a ban.

There is clear evidence and positive momentum in Washington to protect child workers from nicotine exposure. Our next president should act swiftly to end child labor in tobacco farming.

 

Affirming and Expanding LGBT Rights

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT) have made notable gains in the United States in recent years, including the removal of discriminatory restrictions on military service, establishment of non-discrimination protections for federal workers and contractors, and the recognition of a constitutional right to marry. During the current election campaign, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have pledged to be advocates for LGBT people if elected president. However, neither candidate has been quizzed on LGBT rights during the debates, and they should be – important issues are at stake.

The next administration will have the power to extend or reverse the Obama Administration’s executive actions on LGBT rights, including non-discrimination protections for federal workers and contractors and a host of regulations protecting transgender people in employment, housing, healthcare, and public accommodations. As Human Rights Watch has documented, federal protections are important to safeguard the rights of transgender youth in US schools and to end abuses against transgender women in US immigration detention.

The next president can also play a role in securing passage of key legislative proposals pending in Congress, including the Equality Act that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, education, housing, public accommodations, credit, and jury selection; bills to halt bullying and discrimination against LGBT youth; and legislation to support LGBT-inclusive comprehensive sexuality education.

The presidency provides a powerful platform to discuss issues that affect LGBT communities in the US and abroad. Candidates should indicate whether and how they plan to tackle the high rates of homelessness among LGBT youth, take steps to end so-called “conversion therapy,” advance legal gender recognition procedures for transgender people, address high rates of violence against transgender women of color, make HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and care accessible and affordable for all, and better integrate LGBT human rights into US foreign policy.

A great deal remains to be done on LGBT rights, and candidates should be asked to explain how they will ensure that progress continues.

Addressing the Pervasiveness of Sexual Assault

The issue of sexual assault has suddenly been pushed to the center of the US election – but the discussion has still been light on how to deal with the scourge of sexual assault in the US.

President Barack Obama signs a presidential memorandum establishing a White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault during an event for the Council on Women and Girls, the White House, Washington, D.C., January 22, 2014. © 2014 Reuters

The scope of the issue is immense. Someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes in the US. Most female survivors of sexual assault experience short- or long-term symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The White House has taken some steps, particularly with regard to campus sexual assault and the large number of untested rape kits across the country.

But the next president will still have a lot to tackle. Tens of thousands of rape kits remain untested; more than ten years after the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, at least 80,000 inmates are sexually assaulted each year; thousands of service members are raped in the military every year and are often retaliated against for reporting their assaults; at least one in five women are sexually assaulted in college; and the vast majority of assailants never face consequences.

Our research has shown that many survivors are not listened to, their credibility is challenged, and they are often re-traumatized by dealings with police. So, it’s not surprising most survivors decide not to go to police – nearly two thirds of rapes are not reported. Law enforcement and other first responders should take steps to encourage and support survivors so sexual assault will no longer be the most underreported violent crime in the country.

Change is possible. In 2011, Los Angeles eliminated its rape kit backlog two years after Human Rights Watch drew attention to what was then the largest known rape kit backlog in the county; in 2014, the DC Council passed legislation to improve how the city’s police department handles sexual assault cases and treats survivors.

It would be helpful to hear from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump about plans to lower rates of sexual assault in the US and improve government and law enforcement responses to survivors.

The next administration should support measures that require proper documentation of assault cases; aim to change the culture of police departments, the military, and college campuses; and treat survivors with sensitivity, compassion, and respect. This should be a high priority for the next president; too many survivors have already been shamed, silenced, or ignored.

Who Can’t Vote on November Eighth

There are millions of adult Americans who will not have the right to cast a ballot in the upcoming US election.

Those who cannot vote due to a criminal conviction: 6.1 million adults have had their voting rights revoked due to a criminal conviction. In the US, most people who have been convicted of a crime and completed their sentence don’t get have their rights fully restored. They keep being punished, what some deem a form of “civil death,” which includes being denied the right to vote – in some states for life. One in three of those 6.1 million people are Black Americans. One in five Black Americans in Kentucky, Maine, and Virginia have been disenfranchised. In Kentucky (as in Florida and Iowa), that disenfranchisement is for life.

Those who cannot vote due to restrictive voting laws: In the aftermath of a US Supreme Court decision that weakened the US Voting Rights Act, 14 states have made it more difficult to register to vote, including passing voter identification laws and limiting early voting – restrictions that some courts have identified as purposefully suppressing the vote of Black Americans.

In addition, more than two million unauthorized immigrants have lived in the US for 20 years or more, but still have virtually no way to legalize their status, become citizens, and vote. More than 728,000 unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children and have lived in the US for at least five years are eligible under a program established by President Barack Obama to stay and work legally in the country – but without a path to citizenship, and no right to vote.

These groups all have one thing in common. Those who cannot vote in November, for one reason or another, are disproportionately Black or Latino. Whoever takes the reins of US government in November should work to end unreasonable restrictions on voting rights. 

Finishing the Unfinished Business of Guantanamo

On his first full day in office in 2009, US President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay within one year. But, eight years later, with less than four months till the end of Obama’s second term, the prison is still open and 61 detainees remain, the vast majority held without charge.

The front gate of Camp Delta is shown at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay.

© 2007 Reuters

Guantanamo has been a blight on the US reputation for years and stands as a global symbol of injustice. Despite that, the two major party presidential candidates have scarcely mentioned it during the campaign, nor have they or their running mates been asked about it during the debates.

Obama submitted a plan for closing the Guantanamo detention facility to Congress in February. The plan calls for the prosecution of some detainees in federal court rather than before military commissions, while allowing for the transfer of some to US soil for continued detention. Human Rights Watch supports transferring detainees to the US for trial in federal courts because the military commission system at Guantanamo does not meet international fair trial standards – but we oppose the continued detention of prisoners without trial.

The incarceration of those without charge at Guantanamo violates international legal prohibitions on prolonged, indefinite detention. The next president has the obligation to end this practice, whether at Guantanamo or in the US. The remaining 61 Guantanamo detainees who are not being prosecuted in federal courts should be released to home or third countries.

Ending the Dark Chapter on Torture

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States government implemented a program of state-sanctioned torture with which it has still not properly reckoned. Debate moderators would do well to ask candidates in the US presidential election where they stand on the use of torture and how they intend to address past abuses.

The logo of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is shown in the lobby of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia on March 3, 2005. © 2005 Reuters

In 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the summary of a still classified report describing the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program, through which scores of men apprehended in the “global war on terror” were tortured and otherwise mistreated in secret detention sites around the world. But, while the US has prosecuted some individuals – albeit insufficiently – for torturing detainees in US military custody, it has not prosecuted anyone in connection with the CIA torture program, and no redress has been provided to the victims.

Early in the campaign Donald Trump said that if elected, he would “immediately” resume waterboarding and other “much worse” techniques. In March, he acknowledged that waterboarding is illegal and said that he would not order the US military to engage in proscribed acts. He soon added that he would work to change the law.

Hillary Clinton has said that if she becomes president, “the United States will not condone or practice torture anywhere in the world.” She also said that torture does not work, based on “lots of empirical evidence” and statements from intelligence, military, and law enforcement experts.

Torture is a serious violation of US and international law, and during armed conflict is a war crime. Moreover, the use of torture is an unreliable means of gathering useful intelligence according to professional interrogators, became a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations, and destroys the lives of those affected by it. The US practice of torture has undercut its efforts to work with other countries and communities to tackle the problem of terrorism.

For the US to genuinely end its dark chapter on torture, it needs to fulfill its obligations under international law to investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible for torture and provide redress to victims. Trump has said nothing publicly on the issues of prosecutions or redress for past torture and would seemingly oppose both. Clinton has said that she does not support criminally prosecuting those “who were doing what they were told to do,” and does not appear to have addressed the issue of redress for victims.

The failure of successive US administrations to hold those responsible for CIA torture to account increases the danger that a future president will authorize similar illegal interrogation methods in response to an inevitable serious security threat. 

 

Listening to Victims of Military Sexual Assault

Donald Trump described sexual assault in the military as a “massive problem.” While defending a controversial tweet he posted on the issue, he noted that in United States military sexual assault cases, “nobody gets prosecuted.” For her part, Hillary Clinton promises “aggressively combating” military sexual assault. 

Gary Noling holding a photo of his daughter Carri Goodwin, a rape victim who died of acute alcohol intoxication less than a week after receiving an Other Than Honorable discharge from the Marines. Because of her discharge, her father has been unable to secure a military burial for her remains.

© 2013 Francois Pesant

Both candidates would benefit from hearing directly from victims of military sexual assault. When I began researching the issue for Human Rights Watch three years ago, I was surprised to learn that for most victims, the rape itself was not the worst thing – the aftermath was far worse. In interviews with 163 survivors, I heard harrowing tales of retaliation against victims who reported rape. For many, their military service ended with an involuntary, less-than-fully honorable discharge, or one that labeled them “mentally ill,” contributing to further stigma.

These designations have a profound impact on victims’ lives. These survivors, now out of the military, have to show their discharge papers to employers, schools, banks in certain cases, veterans service providers – even for something as seemingly mundane as discounts at a gym or special license plates. Only honorably or generally discharged veterans are entitled to most Veterans Administration services, such as health care or homeless shelter services. Employers ask for discharge records and, as the military itself warns, often resist hiring veterans who were not discharged honorably.

Victims have to constantly explain their papers to strangers, reliving their rape over and over, even years later. Changing military records through understaffed military administrative bodies is an uphill battle with little likelihood of success or even meaningful review.

The US government has done little to help those who were unfairly kicked out of military service after reporting a rape. Given the high stakes, Clinton and Trump should support measures to correct wrongful discharges of sexual assault survivors and strengthen administrative mechanisms to ensure that all veterans have an opportunity to be heard and receive meaningful, independent review of their cases. Survivors of sexual assault in the military who lost their careers should not have to live with the life sentence of a bad discharge.

How the US Talks About Immigrants and Crime

The United States election has been marked by heated debate on unauthorized immigrants and the extent to which they contribute to crime in this country. 

Donald Trump has repeatedly called for the immediate deportation of immigrants with criminal convictions as well as increased immigration enforcement, which he says is necessary to keep out terrorists and dangerous criminals and to keep US citizens safe.

Roland Sylvain, 35, and his wife, Joeddy, 30, who is a US citizen, pictured with their older son, also a US citizen. Born in Haiti, Roland has been a lawful permanent resident of the United States since the age of 7, but he faces permanent exile from the US for a single conviction arising from a traffic offense.

Hillary Clinton has actively sought to distinguish her stance on immigration from Trump’s, promising “humane” enforcement, but at the same time she has also promised to focus on “deporting those individuals who pose a violent threat to public safety.” 

Rhetoric that conflates immigration with crime is both false and dangerous. Numerous studies have debunked the myth that increased immigration leads to increased crime. Many local law enforcement agencies encourage community members –regardless of immigration status –to report crime, believing it is the best way to protect everyone’s safety. Around the world, we’ve seen how such rhetoric from elected officials and politicians have coincided with increased acts of xenophobic violence. 

The US immigration system already imposes extremely harsh and unforgiving consequences for immigrants – even green card holders – who have criminal convictions. Immigrants are subject to mandatory detention and deportation for a wide range of crimes, including low-level drug offenses that are increasingly seen by law enforcement officials and policymakers as deserving less punishment, not more. Detention and deportation harms not only the immigrants, but also devastates their US families

Crime prevention is an important issue deserving of serious debate. The next president of the US can help create effective policies by staying focused on reforming the criminal justice system, rather than scapegoating immigrants.

Addressing the US’s Mass Incarceration Problem

When presidential candidates talk about people involved in the United States criminal justice system, they are speaking about a shockingly vast constituency. Overall, 2.3 million people are being held behind bars in the US, more than the total population of New Mexico (and 13 other states).

Inmates at Chino State Prison sit inside a metal cage in the hallway on December 10, 2010, in Chino, California.

© 2010 Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Consider that nearly half of US children – around 33 million – have a parent with a criminal record. There are 11 million arrests each year, and every year an average of 636,000 people return to their communities after serving time in US prisons. 

The reasons for mass incarceration are many – disproportionately severe sentences and overzealous prosecutors being just two. We’ve documented the outsized role prosecutors play in determining extreme sentences for federal drug offenders, a power magnified by long, arbitrary mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing enhancements. 

Throughout our research we’ve noted how Black Americans have disproportionately borne the burden of US drug enforcement policies, and therefore mass incarceration writ large. 

The US presidential candidates should ground any potential criminal justice reforms in core principles of human rights, including equal protection under the law. They should support policies that ensure the severity of the punishment is proportionate to the gravity of the crime. They should oppose mandatory minimum sentencing laws that prevent judges from tailoring sentences to the individual crime and the particular defendant. 

Furthermore, whoever becomes president should strongly consider working to end jail time for possession of illegal drugs for personal use. While almost all drug possession crimes are prosecuted at the state level, some are prosecuted by the federal government (say for possession on federal grounds, like a national park). 

It’s no doubt an understatement to say that criminal justice reform is not easy – note the most recent, and likely failed, Congressional reform effort. But US policymakers need to work to try and break the chokehold that mass incarceration has upon their country.

A Challenge, and Responsibility, to Set Good Refugee Policy

How to respond to the challenge of asylum seekers and refugees fleeing from Syria and Central America has been a heated topic in the United States election.

Hillary Clinton has said that if they reach the US, “all people fleeing persecution have a full and fair opportunity to tell their story.” She has also called for increased admission of Syrian refugees, with rigorous vetting.

Protesters for and against the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees during a demonstration at the Washington State capitol in Olympia, Washington on November 20, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

Donald Trump has repeatedly urged banning all Syrian refugees on security grounds, saying, “We cannot let them into this country, period.” Beyond calling for bans on Syrian refugees and immigrants coming from countries plagued by “radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump’s immigration policy document calls for “increase[d] standards for the admission of refugees and asylum seekers to crack down on abuses.”

Whether they come from Syria or Congo, Central America or China, people fleeing persecution should get a fair hearing. Governments should not prevent asylum seekers from reaching safe places where their claims can be fairly examined.

Unfortunately, our research has shown that the US has failed to take adequate steps to identify people seeking protection at the US-Mexico border and has pressured Mexico to prevent Central Americans from reaching the US. Neither candidate has indicated a clear commitment to abandon this approach. The US has also detained migrants, including women and children seeking asylum, to deter them, violating its obligations under international law.

In addition to identifying people needing protection who reach US borders, the US and all governments should do their fair share to accept people living in camps or other places of first asylum who have been identified as refugees in need of resettlement.

Security screening is built into the refugee system, and those who have violated the human rights of others or committed serious crimes are excluded from refugee protection. Existing US law and policy on asylum and refugees includes this, and many other rigorous vetting standards. These standards have functioned well for more than six decades; of the nearly 800,000 refugees resettled in the US since September 11, 2001, just three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities.

Setting the right policy toward refugees is not just a US challenge, it’s an international responsibility. The next president of the US – indeed all the world’s governments – could move toward a much better response to refugees by following these and a few other basic principles on refugee protection. 

US: Paid Family Leave Matters – For All Workers

The United States is a true outlier globally when it comes to paid family leave – of 185 countries covered in a 2014 International Labour Organization report, only two lacked paid maternity leave under law – the US and Papua New Guinea. At least 70 countries guarantee paid paternity leave. Many countries have other forms of family leave.

But if promises made during the 2016 presidential election can be relied on, that may change under the next administration. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton support some degree of paid family leave. (Currently, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act offers only unpaid leave, and four US states have paid family leave.)

© Getty Images

Trump’s proposal – six weeks of paid maternity leave for new mothers after they have given birth, funded through unemployment insurance – falls short of modern workforce needs. It excludes fathers, and appears to leave out mothers who adopt. While his plan includes tax deductions for broader family caregiving, it would not guarantee paid family leave for other workers, like those caring for elderly parents or loved ones with disabilities.   

Clinton’s proposal largely matches a bill pending in Congress, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. If adopted, the FAMILY Act would enable workers to take leave to care for new children or seriously ill family members, or to deal with their own serious health conditions, while receiving partial pay (66 percent of wages, to a cap) for up to 12 weeks.

Under the FAMILY Act, paid leave would be funded by small payroll contributions, administered through a social security mechanism. While the Clinton campaign said she applauds the FAMILY Act bill, her plan would rely on “tax reforms that will ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share,” rather than payroll contributions.

Experience from other countries shows that there is no single “right” way to fund paid family leave. The trend is to rely on social insurance mechanisms that take the burden off individual employers. Both Clinton and Trump should better explain their funding ideas, and the next administration should make paid family leave a long overdue reality.

Tainted Water Issue Much Deeper Than Flint

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is on the radar of both presidential candidates, but it’s not clear that either understands the scale of the issue nationally or has a plan to address it. 

“It used to be cars were made in Flint, and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico,” Donald Trump told an audience in Flint, Michigan two weeks ago. “Now, the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint.” 

The top of a water tower is seen at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

“When the children of majority-black Flint, Michigan, have been drinking and bathing in lead-poisoned water for more than a year, making sure all Americans have clean air and water isn’t just a health issue,” Hillary Clinton said in February. “It’s a civil rights issue.” 

But the crisis in Flint, in which thousands of children were exposed to toxic lead while officials denied there was a problem, is the tip of the iceberg and a cautionary tale for the next president. The tainted water in Flint – and the government’s failure to provide timely information to the public – is a human rights disaster that requires resolute action by Congress – not the partisan bickering delaying it

But, the next United States president will have to face the aging water and wastewater systems that plague municipalities around the country. In 2013, the US Conference of Mayors raised the alarm about the high cost of necessary investments in aging water infrastructure and services and that financing these investments would disproportionately affect elderly, poor, and middle class households through rate hikes and taxes. The conference of mayors called for “a fresh look at local affordability and national water policy.”

The US hasn’t recognized a human right to water. But it’s clear that people’s rights are at stake. The candidates need to offer nationwide approaches to ensuring safe drinking water that don’t burden poor families or put the health of the most vulnerable people – a community’s children – at risk.

Holding Police Accountable for Excessive Force

In a year already marked by a slew of controversial police shootings, Monday’s presidential debate comes in the wake of yet two more tragic, deadly incidents.

Terence Crutcher was shot by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma on September 16. In video of the incident, Crutcher appears unarmed, with his arms raised above his head when he was shot. The officer who shot him has been charged with manslaughter.

Police in riot gear block a roadway to stop demonstrators from entering a neighborhood as they protest the police shooting of Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S., September 25, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

Keith Lamont Scott was shot by police in Charlotte, North Carolina four days later. Police allege he was armed; his family disputes that charge. People in Charlotte have been protesting the shooting since Tuesday. 

Donald Trump stated that he was “very troubled” by the shooting of Crutcher. Hillary Clinton tweeted that the shooting of Crutcher was “intolerable.”

The candidates would do well to explain on Monday what, realistically, they each plan to do on the broader issues surrounding these incidents. Whoever is elected in November will need to tackle the issue of the excessive use of force – sometimes deadly – by police in the US. Police officers have rarely been held accountable for these abuses, and the victims are often black men.

Solutions to these problems lie, for the most part, at the state and local level. But there are important steps the new president can take. One is to increase efforts to deal with racial bias among police. “They’ll stop them just for being black,” a Ferguson, Missouri woman told Human Rights Watch at the height of the 2014 protests there – a complaint heard in communities across the country. Proposals to address racial profiling by police have repeatedly failed in Congress.

Transparency is a big issue. We still don’t know how many people are killed by police every year, or what proportion of them are black, because the US government hasn’t found a way to correctly track this data. A new president can put more resources into data collection, and create more incentives for law enforcement agencies to track and share it.

Finally, holding law enforcement accountable for improper use of force is a persistent challenge – Human Rights Watch documented these difficulties in 14 US cities back in 1998. Almost 20 years later, the same obstacles remain. While state and local governments are responsible for accountability, Congress could help strengthen the Justice Department’s ability to investigate police misconduct and to hold those responsible for abuse accountable.

Winning the War on Drugs by Ending It

Despite much discussion about crime during the US presidential election campaign, neither major party candidate has fully spelled out their views on a defining feature of US criminal justice policy: the so-called “war on drugs.”

For decades, the US has poured billions of dollars a year into combatting drugs, through heavy-handed enforcement within the country and abroad of criminal laws on drug possession, production, and distribution. But in recent years, countries like Mexico and Colombia have questioned the effectiveness of this approach. Several US states have legalized marijuana, and the administration of President Barack Obama has increasingly stressed treatment for problematic drug use rather than punishment.

Mexican Army and municipal police officers conduct a joint raid in Ciudad Juárez searching street vendors for drugs and weapons, March 2009.

© 2009 Eros Hoagland/Redux

Donald Trump recently said: “we will appoint the best… federal law enforcement officers in the country to dismantle the international cartels… and I will stop the drugs from flowing into our country and poisoning our youth….” In the past, he has spoken of the need for treatment for drug dependence.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has talked about various criminal justice reforms, including prioritizing treatment over incarceration for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, and “focusing federal enforcement resources on violent crime, not simple marijuana possession.”

Clinton has signaled openness to allowing states to experiment with legalization of marijuana, while Trump has not taken a definitive position.

The reality is that, 45 years since US President Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs,” little has changed in the rates of global drug production or overall drug use in the US. Rather than helping people with problematic drug use, tough enforcement has often led to human rights abuses – extrajudicial executions in the Philippines, the death penalty for drug offenses in Indonesia, killings and torture in Mexico. In the US, existing policies have contributed to mass arrests, disproportionately of Black people, with devastating consequences for the lives and communities of those arrested. Meanwhile, the criminalization of drugs has generated enormous revenues for organized criminal groups that commit atrocities, corrupt authorities, and undermine democratic institutions in countries from Colombia to Afghanistan.

Many people in the US and across the world are starting to come to terms with this reality and to call for a fresh approach, moving away from the current heavy emphasis on criminalization. The candidates should listen, and the next president should chart a course away from the failed policies of the war on drugs.

Drones After Obama

The use of drones outside conventional war zones has received scant attention in the US presidential campaign, despite being a signature element of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. While former president George W. Bush began the US use of armed drones, Obama rapidly expanded deployment of these remotely piloted aircraft to carry out thousands of so-called “targeted killings” against alleged terrorist suspects abroad. Yet, Obama has provided almost no information on who the US has killed, including how many civilians have been among the dead.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California in this USAF handout photo.

© Reuters 2013

Where do the candidates stand? Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have had much to say directly on the issue, suggesting that neither intends a major shift from the Obama administration’s policies.

In his key foreign policy speech of August 15, Trump said “drone strikes will remain part of our strategy, but we will also seek to capture high-value targets to gain needed information to dismantle their organizations.” That comment is consistent with Obama’s policy.

As secretary of state, Clinton supported Obama’s expanded use of armed drones, calling them “one of the most effective and controversial elements” of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy in her 2014 autobiography.

On July 1 the Obama administration, bowing to increased public pressure, released what it described as all casualty figures for US airstrikes outside conventional war zones since 2009. Rather than shedding light on how many civilians were killed in attacks, however, the data raised more questions than it answered. The administration reported that in 473 strikes from 2009 through 2015 outside areas of active hostilities – defined as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria – the United States killed up to 116 “non-combatants” and up to 2,581 “combatants.” But the data did not provide tolls by attack, country, date, or even year, making it impossible to learn details about any particular strike.

The data also does not reveal how many civilians – if any – were killed in attacks that violated international humanitarian or human rights law. The US should make such information public, along with the findings of investigations into strikes that may have been unlawful and whether US security force personnel found responsible were disciplined or prosecuted, as international law requires.

Whatever the outcome of the election, drones will likely continue to be a central element of US counterterrorism policy. The next president should, at minimum, make the program not only more transparent, but accountable. That means public acknowledgment of strikes and credible investigations into allegations of civilian harm. Victims of unlawful strikes should receive compensation, and Obama administration plans to offer condolence payments to all civilian victims should be adopted.

Death Penalty on the Ballot

The death penalty hasn’t been an issue in this presidential election, in part because the two main candidates support the continued use of capital punishment.

Hillary Clinton backs the death penalty for certain terrorism-related crimes and supports the Justice Department decision to seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof, who is accused of the June 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Donald Trump has stated that he would support the death penalty for any person who kills a police officer

The execution chamber of the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.

© 1997 Reuters

But while the candidates support capital punishment, the death penalty is very much in play in two key states: California and Nebraska.

California voters are asked to vote on two ballot measures on the death penalty: Proposition 62, which would abolish capital punishment in the state, and Proposition 66, which aims to streamline the appeals process for capital cases, in effect speeding up executions. A 2012 attempt to abolish the death penalty via ballot initiative failed, with 52 percent voting to retain the penalty.

Nebraska voters will vote to retain or reject their legislature’s decision to abolish the death penalty. If they reject the legislature’s decision, Nebraska will be the first US state in 21 years to reinstate the death penalty after abolishing it.

The number of people being executed in the US is falling – 15 so far this year, most of them in Texas and Georgia. That’s the lowest number since 1991. Thirty states still allow for the death penalty, though in 2016 only five have carried out executions.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all cases because the inherent dignity of the person cannot be squared with the death penalty, a form of punishment unique in its cruelty and finality. It is a penalty widely rejected by countries around the world. In fact, the vast majority of all executions each year are carried out by just five countries: Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, Pakistan, and the United States.

While abolishing the death penalty has not been up for discussion during the US presidential election, the state-by-state promise of progress on abolition – as well as the threat of retreat – will still be very much in play in November.

A Flawed Immigration System

What to do About The 11 Million?

That’s the politically charged question about the estimated 11 million immigrants without legal status living in the United States. It’s a question for debate during the current US election, as it was in 2012, as it was in 2008, and so on. But year after year, presidents and Congress fail to address the flaws in the country’s immigration system.

People march on Capitol Hill in Washington DC to urge congress to act on immigration reform on June 26, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

More than half of those 11 million have lived in the US for more than a decade, and over 2 million have lived in the US for 20 years or more. They have families and friendships in the US and US neighbors. They worship and work in the US. Their roots are deep, and their rights matter.

The issue has been one of the flashpoints of the election. Donald Trump has consistently called for the large-scale removal of undocumented immigrants from the country. “Under my plan the undocumented, or, as you would say, illegal immigrant wouldn’t be in the country,” he said recently. Hillary Clinton has pledged to pursue “comprehensive reform” of immigration laws and a pathway to citizenship.

But what's needed is not just “reform”, but a radical overhaul of draconian immigration laws and enforcement practices that have taken a steep human toll during the eight years of the Obama administration.

More than 5 million children born in the US – who are therefore citizens – are in families with at least one unauthorized parent. When these children turn 21, they can apply for family members to get legal status. But until then, these children are being raised with the constant threat that one or both of their parents will be apprehended and deported. That risk and its impact on family life and decision-making can affect preschool enrollment rates, English proficiency, and even brain development. The rights of these US citizen children are at stake as well.

All Americans have a stake in this debate. They have neighbors and colleagues who are among the 11 million. They benefit when their neighbors aren’t afraid to call the police when they witness a crime, or report a workplace violation when people are in danger. 

Important questions about the US immigration system are in play during the 2016 election. Yet people with deep roots in the country – and their children – should not be held hostage while those questions are resolved. Immigrants who have lived in the US for many years should have a shot at legal status. 

Life goes on, roots grow deeper, and no one is served by leaving 11 million people in limbo.