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US: Systemic Rights Failings

Capitol Attack, Pandemic, Police Killings, Racial Injustice, Migrants’ Rights, Economic Disparities

Demonstrators kneel outside the Long Beach Police Department in Long Beach, California during a protest on May 31, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File

(Washington, DC) – Like the January 6, 2021 mob attack on the US capitol involving white supremacists, the Covid-19 pandemic, police killings of Black and brown people, and other events over the past year laid bare major human rights failings in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. President-elect Joe Biden should not only repair recent damage done to human rights protections in the US, but pursue broad, systemic changes to address persistent racial inequality, protect people from violent white extremism, uphold the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, and address economic disparities, including the impacts of climate change.

“The January 6 attack came on top of multiple human rights violations that reverberated in devastating ways in communities across the United States in 2020,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US Program executive director at Human Rights Watch. “Accountability for the January 6 attack and other possible criminal acts by outgoing President Donald Trump and his enablers is linked to the need for the Biden administration to prioritize both urgent rights issues and the systemic racism and other abuses that underlie them.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join and expand, not supplant, this new collective effort. 

The United States led the world in coronavirus cases and total deaths, while President Donald Trump and other officials spread disinformation about the virus. The pandemic had, and continues to have, a grossly disproportionate impact on Black, brown, and Native people, including its severe economic impact due to longstanding disparities in health, education, and economic status.

Nursing facilities’ longstanding infection control problems, coupled with reduced public oversight during the pandemic, put already vulnerable older residents at greater risk. Many low-income workers, particularly in agriculture and food production, faced unsafe working conditions that led to outbreaks. Jails and prisons in the United States saw disproportionately large numbers of Covid-19 cases that impacted not only the incarcerated but the surrounding communities whose residents work at and maintain the facilities.

While federal relief packages initially stemmed growth in the poverty rate, many protections expired in the summer of 2020.

Many schools switched to online learning in response to the pandemic, but one in five school-age children in the US has no access to a computer or high-speed internet at home. School closures risk widening racial and economic inequalities in education and have a particularly significant impact on children with disabilities.

Police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the shooting of Jacob Blake, and other assaults on Black people provoked mass protests across the country calling for police accountability, a reduction in the scope and power of policing, and an overhaul of the discriminatory criminal legal system. Local and federal law enforcement officials often responded to protests with unnecessary or excessive force.

While some states enacted criminal legal system reforms, the vast majority maintained aggressive policing and incarceration to address societal problems instead of making necessary investments in health, education, and job opportunities underlying these problems. These include problematic drug use, inadequate housing, mental health issues, and poverty, particularly in low-income, Black, brown, and Native communities.

Elected officials increasingly recognized that racial disparities are connected to the legacy of slavery. A federal bill, H.R. 40, proposing the establishment of a commission to investigate slavery’s legacy and create reparations proposals, gained unprecedented momentum in Congress.

The Trump administration continued to undermine the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. It used the Covid-19 pandemic as pretext to close land borders, including to asylum seekers. Immigration detention centers, along with jails and prisons, had massive Covid-19 outbreaks.

The Trump administration weakened regulations that reduce pollution, and its 2017 decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change took effect. Devastating weather-related disasters, exacerbated by climate change, and lack of access to clean water, hurt low-income communities in the US the most. Increasing heat is linked to negative maternal and health outcomes, with a particular impact on Black women.  

The administration continued its attempts to roll back healthcare and housing protections for transgender people, despite a US Supreme Court ruling that a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The administration also undermined regulations to protect consumers against predatory lenders and abusive debt collectors.

In its foreign policy, the Trump administration undermined multilateral institutions, including using sanctions to weaken the International Criminal Court. The State Department released a report advocating a hierarchical approach to human rights and relegating abortion and marriage equality to “divisive social and political controversies.”

The administration, in its partnerships with abusive governments, flouted international human rights and humanitarian law, including selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates despite their numerous laws-of-war violations in Yemen. In positive moves, the government sanctioned senior officials in China, Syria, and Uganda for serious human rights abuses.

Despite the pandemic, the US general election in November provided significantly improved access to voting compared with the primary elections earlier in the year. Despite a clear outcome for Biden, Trump has continually made baseless allegations of voter fraud and sought to undo everyone’s right to have their vote counted. The January 6 attack on the US Capitol is the natural progression of the persistent lies and racism in Trump’s statements and policies. The Biden agenda needs to include investigation and accountability for Trump and others implicated in provoking violent attacks, including by white supremacist groups, as well as for Trump’s and other leaders’ various assaults on US democratic processes and the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said. The threats from violent white extremism and other actions to undermine democracy in the US remain acute.

“A new administration provides new hope for the advancement of human rights in the coming year,” Austin-Hillery said. “By centering human rights in its policies, the Biden administration can better support people in the United States to live with dignity, to feel safe, and to have access to justice no matter the color of their skin.”


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