Families chat while separated on either side of the US-Mexico border fence at Border Field State Park, California, November 19, 2016. 

© 2016 Mike Blake/Reuters

The election of Donald Trump as US president in November 2016 capped a campaign marked with numerous proposals that would harm millions of people, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017.

They include plans to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants, to revise US laws to permit torture, and to increase the number of terrorism suspects detained indefinitely without trial at Guantanamo Bay. There was also some progress during 2016 in adopting long overdue reforms in such areas as criminal justice, immigration, and national security.

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

“Though the US still has far to go to meet its human rights obligations, there was real reform in such policies as President Obama’s commutation program, the reduction of the population at Guantanamo, and state-level changes to draconian criminal law,” said Alison Parker, co-director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “Trump’s election raises new fears that this limited progress could be reversed, resulting in a harsher, more dangerous human rights landscape.”

President Barack Obama commuted sentences of 1,176 people in 2016, and the Justice Department announced reforms to solitary confinement policies, including a ban on solitary confinement for youth in federal prisons. California voters passed a ballot initiative giving judges the sole power to try a child in adult court and increasing parole opportunities for nonviolent offenders. However, the US locks up more than 2.1 million each year, the largest reported incarcerated population in the world. Although Congress debated limited reform of federal sentencing laws, it was unable to pass any reform.

By the end of 2016, the US was detaining a record 41,000 non-citizens, up from a usual 31,000-34,000 on any given day, including women and children, many of them seeking asylum. Many are in abusive detention conditions, including dangerously substandard medical care, largely due to severely inadequate oversight of a sprawling system of county jails, private detention centers, and a few US government-run facilities. Obama administration executive actions providing temporary legal status to some undocumented immigrants would have prevented their deportation for a time, but a Supreme Court decision effectively blocked the relief.

During his campaign, President-elect Trump said he would revoke Obama’s executive actions. He has since said he would deport or detain two to three million immigrants with criminal records. Although the details have not been announced, detention and deportation on such a large scale is likely to lead to massive rights violations.

Local and state governments also engaged in abusive or discriminatory policies. Excessive force by US police received ongoing scrutiny, with several high-profile killings of black men by police. State legislatures introduced a record number of bills to restrict the rights of LGBT people.

The US continued to indefinitely detain people at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, as well as to pursue prosecutions in fundamentally flawed military commissions that do not comport with international fair trial standards. The Obama administration did make significant gains in releasing detainees to home or third countries, reducing the population from 107 at the end of 2015 to 60 at the end of 2016.

The US released figures for “non-combatants” killed as part of its targeted killing program, often using aerial drones, outside conventional war zones. But groups including Human Rights Watch questioned the accuracy of the figures. President Obama also issued an executive order promising payments to families of “non-combatants” killed, but it will be up to President-elect Trump to follow through.

The US continued to operate large-scale warrantless intelligence surveillance programs, collecting information about both US and non-US people without meaningful oversight, transparency, or accountability.

Seven states took an important step by legalizing recreational or medical marijuana in 2016. Federal and state laws criminalize possession of illicit drugs for personal use, however. Enforcement of these inherently disproportionate laws has been racially discriminatory and has ruined countless lives.

“We continue to urge President-elect Trump to abandon abusive and discriminatory proposals and to renounce the racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic rhetoric that characterized his campaign,” Parker said. “Policies that curtail the rights of some people are likely to diminish the rights of everyone in the US.”