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In this update to its October 2019 submission in advance of the 2020 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States (originally scheduled for May 2020), Human Rights Watch highlights areas of concern regarding threats to the right to vote, violations of freedom of assembly, systemic racism and economic inequality, the need to provide reparations for slavery and its ongoing harms, violations of migrants’ rights, and the continued retreat from international human rights norms.

We urge your government to participate actively in the UPR process and to make concrete recommendations to United States authorities to address the issues listed below.

Threats to the Right to Vote

The United States will hold general elections in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic on November 3, 2020. A Human Rights Watch examination of problems with primary elections in four states in mid-2020 found that pandemic-related adjustments to voting procedures—such as the elimination of in-person polling stations—had discriminatory impacts, particularly on Black voters. Also, while some states have adopted necessary measures, such as increasing access to mail-in voting, in response to the pandemic, these may mean election administrators will need to take more time to tally votes. The incumbent presidential candidate has raised concerns about voter fraud, despite a lack of evidence, and suggested that mail-in ballots should not be counted, in apparent disregard for the right to participate in free and fair elections and posing a potential threat to the right to vote.

UPR recommendations to the United States:

  • Ensure the right to vote without discrimination by increasing access to every method of voting allowed in each state or jurisdiction.
  • Ensure all legitimate votes are counted and tallied.

Violations of Freedom of Assembly

The police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020—one in a series of high-profile police killings in recent years of unarmed Black people, including Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and Philando Castile—sparked protests by tens of millions of people in all 50 states against police violence. Protesters also call for greater accountability for police misconduct, a reduction in the scope and power of police, and genuine reforms to the criminal legal system. The police in many places responded to these protests with excessive force and abuse: beating up protesters, conducting mass arrests, and using military force to disperse and discourage protests. In numerous instances, police used tear gas, pepper spray, stun grenades, and rubber bullets—sometimes firing directly at protesters—leading to serious injuries. In several cases, police used "kettling" tactics, trapping protesters in an enclosed space, then arresting them, often using the abovementioned less-lethal weapons.

Many of those arrested during protests said they were held for hours, and sometimes more than a day, in crowded, filthy conditions with no protection from Covid-19. Scores of journalists were among those attacked, arrested, or otherwise harassed during the protests—sometimes on live camera.

The federal government deployed multiple federal agencies, with apparent lack of training in crowd control, to protests. These included agencies like Customs and Border Protection that have a record of serious human rights abuses.

UPR recommendations to the United States:

  • Ensure that any agents or officers deployed to protests have adequate training in crowd control consistent with international standards on policing and use of force. Do not deploy agencies or agents against which there are credible allegations of human rights abuse.
  • Take measures to end the serious police misconduct and human rights violations documented in protest responses and elsewhere and pursue structural reforms to reduce the role of police in addressing societal problems.

Systemic Racism, Inequality, and Covid-19

Racial disparities in the enjoyment of the right to health in the United States are stark and have been accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to data through the end of May 2020 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Latinx and Black residents of the United States have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors, and Black and Latinx people have been nearly twice as likely to die from complications arising from the novel coronavirus as white people. Covid-19 further has exposed stark economic inequality, with cities like New York and Los Angeles reporting Covid-19 related death as being three times higher for people living in the most deprived areas compared to the most affluent. People with low incomes are more prone to chronic health conditions, which might have made the novel coronavirus deadlier for them.

Public health measures designed to slow the spread of the virus, like quarantines and stay-at-home orders, have disproportionately impacted people of color and those already living in or vulnerable to poverty. Low wage earners lost jobs at a much higher rate than middle or high wage earners, reducing health coverage. In September, more than half of all US households, especially those with lower incomes, reported difficulties paying for essential services and expenses. Workers deemed essential often faced unsafe working conditions leading to outbreaks, particularly in the agricultural and food production sectors.

UPR recommendations to the United States:

  • Fulfill the right to the highest attainable standard of health for all during the Covid-19 pandemic, including by ensuring testing and treatment are accessible without discrimination and affordable for all.
  • Focus Covid-19 economic and social relief efforts on the rights of the most vulnerable by extending unemployment benefits for all impacted workers throughout the crisis, including informal and undocumented workers; ensuring comprehensive health coverage; and implementing universal social programs such as paid family and medical leave for all, among other steps.

Health Impacts of Climate Change

The US saw new temperature records broken in the Spring and Summer of 2020, often resulting in dangerously hot days in cities and other areas with large vulnerable populations, including older people and people with pre-existing conditions, as well as pregnant women who have been largely invisible in efforts to address the health impacts of the climate crisis. These efforts have been limited and mostly local because the US government has not produced a national climate action plan, reflecting denialism by parts of the government and unwillingness to adequately fund health adaptation efforts.

UPR recommendation to the United States:

  • Take measures and commit to address the impacts of dangerous heat on public health, including higher mortality rates and increasing rates of premature birth and other adverse birth outcomes.

The Need for Reparations

In 2021, survivors and descendants of those harmed during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre will mark a grim 100-year milestone. Human Rights Watch has called on state and local authorities in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to provide reparations to the few remaining massacre survivors and their descendants, and address ongoing harms stemming from subsequent policies and the failure of authorities to take action previously. In addition, we urged the United States to go beyond providing reparations in this specific case and take meaningful steps to adequately account for the wrongs of slavery. This includes working to repair the damage done by subsequent 20th century policy decisions that resulted in the structural racism, economic, educational and health inequalities, housing segregation, and discriminatory policing policies and practices that exist today. Passing US House Resolution 40 (H.R. 40), a federal bill to establish a commission to investigate the legacy of slavery and submit proposals for Congress to provide reparations, such as apology and compensation, would be an important step toward beginning this process.

UPR recommendations to the United States:

  • Pursue proportionate and prompt reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and its aftermath.
  • Pass US House Resolution 40 to collect data and produce studies on the role of reparations in addressing persistent racial disparities in the United States.

Violations of Migrants’ Rights

As the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated in March, the US government, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speciously used public health to justify an order that resulted in summary expulsions of asylum seekers and the abrogation of longstanding protections for unaccompanied migrant children. Under the order, US border agents are no longer required to ask migrants if they have a fear of return to their country of origin, nor are they required to provide migrants with access to an asylum officer, even when they express a fear of return unprompted. With border agents empowered to unilaterally and summarily decide fear claims, the United States expelled more than 159,000 people along the US-Mexico border, including nearly 9,000 unaccompanied children, through September 2020.

Deaths in US immigration detention spiked to a 15-year high with over 6,000 cases of Covid-19 among detained people and at least eight fatalities. People in detention, including children, are at higher risk of exposure to Covid-19 due to facility overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and inadequate medical care.

UPR recommendation to the United States:

  • Repeal border measures that block asylum seekers and allow people who claim international protection access to a fair and efficient procedure that prioritizes the use of detention alternatives.

Further Retreat from International Norms and Accountability

The United States continues to disengage from multilateral institutions. In July, the United States informed the United Nations it would withdraw from the World Health Organization. The US Department of State’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, a body established in 2019 to “reexamine” US commitments to international human rights, released a report in August advocating a hierarchical approach to human rights and relegating abortion and LGBT rights to “political” questions. In September, the United States imposed sanctions against the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor and another senior official, putting into effect a sweeping June executive order authorizing unprecedented asset freezes against ICC officials and others who assist certain ICC investigations.

UPR recommendations to the United States:

  • Recommit to multilateral institutions and international justice.
  • Rescind Executive Order 13928 authorizing sanctions aimed at undermining the ICC’s essential mandate as a court of last resort.
  • Commit to upholding a non-hierarchical and binding approach to international human rights law.

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