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In 1994, Human Rights Watch documented serious human rights abuses in the United States, centered on three important themes: U.S. compliance with international human rights treaties; law enforcement-related abuses, including torture and beatings by U.S. Border patrol agents, mistreatment of prisoners in maximum security facilities, and involvement of physicians in executions; and freedom of association, travel, and debate.

U.S. Compliance with the ICCPR

After a delay of more than a quarter century, on September 8, 1992 the United States became a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Under the terms of the ICCPR, the United States had one year from the date of ratification to file a report on its compliance with covenant provisions. In anticipation of that report, in December 1993 Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a 216-page report on the U.S. human rights record titled Human Rights Violations in the United States.

The report found significant shortcomings in the U.S. record, from the summary repatriation of Haitian boat people to the brutal treatment of prisoners. In these and other cases, the ICCPR could offer greater protection against human rights abuses than the current interpretation of U.S. law. However, the Bush administration, through a series of reservations, declarations and understandings had nullified every provision of the treaty that it believed would have granted expanded rights to Americans. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch called on the Clinton administration to allow Americans to invoke the protection of the covenant in U.S. courts.

In October 1994, the United States made public its report on compliance with ICCPR guarantees. As a follow-up to the December 1993 report, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU evaluated the U.S. report, criticizing it for reserving candor for abuses that were largely in the past while remaining vague or silent about ongoing human rights violations. The U.S. report primarily recited constitutional and statutory provisions, a technique for avoiding serious human rights scrutiny that the U.N. Human Rights Committee criticized.

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU provided an update of substantive areas in which the groups had previously found that the U.S. human rights record fell short of international standards:

Prison Conditions

By forcing prisoners to live in extremely overcrowded conditions and punishing prisoners at "supermaximum security" facilities, the United States routinely violated Article 10 of the ICCPR, which requires that all prisoners and detainees "be treated with humanity and with respect to the inherent dignity of the human person." The anti-discrimination requirement of Article 26 was violated by the unequal treatment of women prisoners, who received fewer recreational, vocational, and educational opportunities than their male counterparts. The crime bill passed by Congress in August would aggravate many problems that U.S. prisoners already faced in penal custody.

Immigrants and Refugees

The interdiction and summary repatriation of Haitian boat people was a flagrant violation of Article 12, which states that "[e]veryone shall be free to leave any country, including his own." In June, the Clinton administration ended its policy of interdicting and returning Haitians without any inquiry into the likelihood that they would face persecution upon return. After a brief period of shipboard screening, the administration settled on a policy of safe haven, which provided for intercepted Haitians to be taken to the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, where they were detained in a military camp or sent on to refugee camps in third countries.

The September 1994 agreement with the Cuban government, in which Cuba agreed to prevent its citizens from departing by sea in exchange for a U.S. increase in the number of available visas, appeared to violate Article 12 because of U.S. insistence that Cuba prevent its citizens from leaving their own country.

Human rights abuses by Border Patrol agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service violated Article 7 (the right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment) and Article 9(1) (the right to liberty and security of the person).

The Death Penalty

Article 6 of the ICCPR favors but does not require the abolition of the death penalty. It also limits the circumstances in which the death penalty may be imposed: arbitrary deprivation of life is forbidden, as is the execution of juveniles; furthermore, the death penalty may be imposed "only for the most serious crimes." The United States entered a reservation to the ICCPR that allowed it to use capital punishment to the extent permitted under the U.S. Constitution. But for this reservation, the U.S. would have been in violation of all of the above conditions of Article 6.

The new U.S. crime bill authorized the death penalty for sixty offenses including crimes that did not involve murder such as drug trafficking and certain attempted murders by "drug kingpins." Congress also rejected efforts to create a federal right to be free from racial discrimination in state and federal death penalty cases. As of July 20, there were 2,870 people on death row. As of August 3, there had been 249 executions. The thirty-eight executions carried out in 1993 represented the highest yearly rate since the resumption of capital punishment in 1976; 56 percent of those executed were white; 38 percent African-American, and 4 percent Native American.

Police Brutality

Police abuse in the United States was one of the nation's most pressing human rights issues. The persistent use of excessive force, often exacerbated by racism, violated the Article 7 prohibition on "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment" and the prohibition in Articles 2 and 26 against discrimination. The United States further violated Article 2 by failing to take "the necessary steps" to ensure respect for these basic rights.

The new crime bill increases protection against police brutality by permitting the Attorney General to institute a civil action upon reasonable cause to believe that a governmental authority or agent is abusing the rights of juveniles in custody. The legislation also provides for the collection of data about the use of excessive force by police officers nationwide.

The 1993 report also examined U.S. practices in the areas of race and sex discrimination, language rights, religious liberty, and free expression.

Human Rights Watch pressed Congress to enact legislation overturning the restrictive reservations, declarations and understandings that the U.S. had attached, and providing U.S. litigants with the opportunity to invoke the ICCPR in American courts.

Border Violence

In 1994, Human Rights Watch conducted a third investigation of human rights abuses committed along the U.S.-Mexico border by the Border Patrol of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). As a follow-up to 1992 and 1993 reports that documented serious physical abuse and mistreatment, in July 1994 Human Rights Watch visited the San Diego-Tijuana border area in California and the Tucson-Nogales border area in Arizona. In addition to updating information regarding previously documented cases, Human Rights Watch received testimony regarding sixteen new cases of alleged Border Patrol or Customs abuses, including unjustified shootings, sexual assault, and severe beatings. Human Rights Watch examined Border Patrol procedures for training agents, receiving and handling complaints of abuse, disciplining and tracking problem agents, and holding agents accountable for follow-through on investigations of abuse.

Human Rights Watch found that attempts to address concerns raised in previous reports were insufficient and, to the extent changes were implemented at all, unsuccessful. The organization continued to press for Congressional passage of the Immigration Enforcement Review Commission Act, which would create independent civilian review of the INS.

Prisoners' Rights

The Human Rights Watch Prison Project continued to monitor the treatment of prisoners in the United States. In response to news that the United States might negotiate with Cuba for the possible repatriation of Cubans being detained in United States prisons since their arrival in the Mariel boat-lift in 1980, Human Rights Watch wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno in September 1994 to urge fair treatment for the detainees. Because of evidence that Mariel Cuban detainees were denied due process rights in INS detention proceedings, Human Rights Watch opposed repatriation of detained Mariel Cubans without a hearing to determine whether the Cubans should instead be released into American society.

The Human Rights Watch Prison Project continued to request access to the Westville, Indiana Maximum Control Complex (MCC). The project had received reports over the previous two years of human rights abuses in the MCC, including physical brutality and unacceptable living conditions. In April 1994, the Prison Project demanded an independent inquiry of abuses that had been reported, and reiterated its request to conduct an on-site investigation. In September, the Westville MCC denied access, writing, "There will be no inspection. Correctional facilities have not been created, nor do they function, for the purpose of having special interest groups 'inspect' them for whatever specific cause that group may champion." The Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC) was the only jurisdiction under the U.S. authorities, aside from Puerto Rico, that had refused Human Rights Watch access to a correctional facility.

In a letter urging the IDOC to grant the Prison Project access to the Westville MCC, the Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience Project wrote that the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights "are not 'specific issues' championed by 'special interest groups', but human rights standards established by the international community that apply to correctional facilities everywhere in the world." The facility's refusal had generated widespread negative publicity, and the Prison Project, along with civil rights groups and religious leaders, continued to press for access.

The Prison Project collaborated with the Women's Rights Project to conduct a year-long investigation into abuses against women incarcerated in state prisons across the United States. A report based on that research was planned for release in 1995.

Death Penalty

In March 1994, Human Rights Watch, the American College of Physicians, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Physicians for Human Rights released an 80-page report titled Breach of Trust: Physician Participation in Executions in the United States. In addition to the federal government and the U.S. military, thirty-seven states had death penalty statutes. Methods of execution reviewed in the report included lethal injection, electrocution, the gas chamber, hanging, and the firing squad. The United States was the only country in the world using lethal injection as an execution method, which had brought renewed attention to the issue of medical participation in executions.

The report documented continued physician involvement in executions in violation of ethical and professional codes of conduct and American Medical Association (AMA) and World Medical Association (WMA) policies. Physician involvement was often mandated by state law and specified in departmental regulations about execution procedures. Even when state laws were vague about requiring physician participation, research indicated that in practice, physicians were often directly involved in the execution process. The report provided legal and ethical analyses of the issues involved, and made recommendations designed to ensure that U.S. laws would not require physicians to violate professional ethics.

The clash between death penalty law and medical ethics reached the federal level when the U.S. Justice Department proposed new rules for federal executions. The rules proposed use of lethal injections and mandated that at least one physician attend the execution and pronounce death. Medical professionals vigorously opposed the rule. As a result, in early 1993 the Justice Department eliminated the requirement that a physician be present and that physicians be required to pronounce death. Although the new regulation allowed medical professionals to decline to participate in executions on the basis of national ethics, the rules did not prohibit physician participation.

The relevant statutes of the thirty-six states with the death penalty mentioned the presence of a physician in all but two cases. Some statutes were in direct conflict with the AMA ethical standards. Twenty-three states required that a physician "determine" or "pronounce" death. Twenty-eight state statutes or regulations required that a physician "shall" or "must" be present at the execution. Within each state, the Department of Corrections usually designed its own set of regulations for conducting executions. These regulations were frequently difficult to obtain, and were confidential in some states. The regulations translated the usually vague language of the state statute into specific assignments for physicians involved in executions. The report gave a state-by-state analysis of regulations, detailing the participation of physicians in procedures such as inspecting equipment, supervising a heart monitor fitted to the condemned inmate, administering the lethal injection, and witnessing the execution to ensure that death was induced.

Although the regulations left no doubt about physicians' role in the execution process, they did not reliably describe the extent of actual physician involvement. The report provided information from interviews conducted with witnesses to recent executions in Mississippi, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, and South Carolina.


According to a former warden, prison staff medical technicians would attach two EKG monitors and two stethoscopes to the prisoner's chest in an isolation cell a few paces from the gas chamber. Two physicians, who would sit behind the gas chamber out of view of the official witnesses, would monitor the EKG and stethoscopes. They were local doctors who volunteered for the task and were not paid. The doctors advised the warden when the prisoner had expired.


According to a criminologist who witnessed three executions, a physician employed by the Department of Corrections would await completion of the execution in a small conference room directly off the execution chamber. After the electric chair was turned off, there was a three minute "cooling period." The doctor would enter the chamber, place a stethoscope to the inmate's chest, and pronounce that the inmate had expired.

South Carolina

In 1991, Donald Gaskins attempted suicide about sixteen hours before his scheduled execution. Gaskins used a razor blade to slit his wrists and elbows. He passed out from loss of blood, and was found unconscious about an hour later. A physician was called in to treat Mr. Gaskins, and he stitched the inmates's wounds tightly, restricting movement of the arms. Gaskins remained unconscious, strapped down on a gurney in the cell. The doctor was in and out, periodically checking on his condition. Just before the execution, Mr. Gaskins regained consciousness. He was escorted to the electric chair and executed.

The report also documented instances in which physicians who work for correctional health systems have suffered consequences for refusing to participate in executions.

In the wake of the report, Human Rights Watch worked with physicians' and human rights groups to press for changes in the laws and regulations of all death penalty states to incorporate AMA guidelines on physician participation and urged state medical boards, which were responsible for licensure and discipline, to define physician participation as unethical conduct and to take appropriate action against physicians who violated ethical standards.

Restriction of

Free Expression in

Miami's Cuban Exile Community

Human Rights Watch continued to monitor free expression in Miami by documenting instances of harassment and intimidation against members of the Cuban exile community in Miami, Florida who express moderate political views on Castro or relations with Cuba. Since its original report, in 1992, which linked anti-communist forces in the exile community to acts of violence against their more moderate compatriots, Human Rights Watch has noted some improvements in free expression in Miami, particularly with regard to direct U.S. government involvement or complicity in repressive activities. Overall, however, the atmosphere for unpopular political speech remained marked by fear and danger. This danger became manifest in late April 1994, following a conference in Havana on "The Nation and Emigration." Miami residents who attended the conference returned home to find themselves besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assaults, acts of violence, and economic retaliation.

The hatred against those who favored dialogue with Cuba was fed by a few powerful local Spanish radio stations, in particular Radio Mambi, Radio CMQ, and La Cubanisima. Radio stations identified conference participants by name and referred to them derogatorily, sponsored listener-participation programs in which callers were permitted to defame conference participants, and invited listeners to vote as to which participants deserved to have an "act of repudiation" carried out against them.

Conference participants who had been victims of attack were generally satisfied with the response of local and federal law enforcement agents, but no arrests were made in connection with any of the violent incidents or threats reported.

While the lack of evidence of direct government involvement in suppressing certain viewpoints was a significant improvement since the 1992 report, Human Rights Watch stepped up its calls on state, local and federal officials to take affirmative action to protect those who exercised their First Amendment rights to freedom of opinion and expression.

Right to Travel

Human Rights Watch continued to advocate for the right to travel. Restrictions on travel violated the right to free speech as embodied in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 19 of the ICCPR. The right of Americans to travel abroad was critical to their ability to participate fully in public debate on foreign policy and international security matters.

Human Rights Watch urged adoption of the Free Trade in Ideas Act of 1994, passed by Congress in May, which included a non-binding resolution that travel for educational, religious, cultural or humanitarian purposes or for public performances or exhibitions should not be restricted. It also prohibited the banning of travel under any future embargoes.

After the passage of the act, the administration began conducting a policy review for the purpose of implementing the Congressional resolution. In late August, however, this salutary trend was reversed in response to the Cuban refugee crisis. In direct opposition to the protections advocated in the Free Trade in Ideas Act, the administration barred family visits to Cuba except in dire emergencies, excluded free-lance journalists and documentary filmmakers, and banned travel for public performances or exhibitions. In the wake of this reversal, Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for the Clinton administration to lift the ban on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba.

Ratification of Treaties

During 1994, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to support ratification of two important international conventions, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Human Rights Watch also provided recommendations regarding the Clinton administration's proposed reservations to the conventions. Human Rights Watch urged the Foreign Relations Committee to reject the administration's proposed understanding that implementation of the conventions would be divided among federal, state and local governments, because the understanding could be interpreted to limit federal responsibility for the conduct of state, and local governments. The committee was also advised to reject declarations that would enable the U.S. to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to submit to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice concerning disputes over interpretation of the conventions. Finally, Human Rights Watch urged the committee to amend the reservations providing that private discriminatory conduct would be regulated only as mandated by the U.S. Constitution and law.

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