Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Human Rights Developments

Human Rights Watch continued to focus on immigration practices, police abuse, detainees and prisoners rights, the death penalty, and issues of discrimination in the United States. During 1996, through new legislation and the persistence of established abusive practices, U.S. authorities at federal and state levels undermined the rights of vulnerable groups, making the year a disturbing one for human rights. The fact that the U.S. hosted the XXVI Olympics in July, and presented itself aggressively as a leader in human rights and democracy through the vehicle of the Games, underscored yet again the importance of pressing the U.S. government to accept the full authority of international human rights standards; Human Rights Watch issued a report focusing on the Olympic venues of Atlanta and the state of Georgia with this goal in mind.


Throughout the year, politically popular proposals made by Congress and the White House contributed to the accelerated erosion of basic due process and human rights protections in the United States. Despite his public proclamations in support of civil and human rights, President Bill Clinton displayed a startling lack of will to preserve rights under attack, and in some cases took the lead in eliminating human rights protections. Among the seriously flawed bills passed and signed into law were provisions to limit habeas corpus appeals, undermine prisoners rights to bring lawsuits to address inhumane custodial conditions or treatment, and inhibit the ability of individuals fleeing persecution to seek asylum in the U.S. or challenge decisions about their immigration status. The new laws, all of which were opposed by Human Rights Watch, quickly led to court challenges that were pending as of this writing.In April, President Clinton signed into law the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which, among other objectionable provisions, allowed the use of secret evidence to deport legally admitted immigrants and imposed unprecedented restrictions on habeas corpus appeals for all defendants. The new law limits federal court review of state court convictions except in cases where the previous state court decision was unreasonable. The new restrictions were imposed despite the fact that 40 percent of state cases carrying the death penalty, when reviewed in federal courts, have been found to contain harmful constitutional errors and have been overturned. The constitutionality of the new law was immediately challenged in court.The effect of the new restrictions was particularly dramatic in death penalty cases because the new laws rigid time limits would deter lawyers from taking on complex capital cases. Coupled with the elimination of federal support for legal programs that provided representation for persons facing the death penalty, the new law left many death row prisoners without essential legal advice. Civil liberties organizations and Human Rights Watch had reported on innumerable examples of poor representation in capital cases that had led to death sentences; new restrictions on habeas corpus appeals, coupled with funding cuts for legal assistance, further endangered these defendants' lives. The Prison Litigation Reform Act, which became law in April 1996, made it more difficult to initiate a lawsuit to improve treatment of inmates, or to monitor court orders to improve conditions stemming from such lawsuits. This, despite the fact that lawsuits have historically been the only reliably effective way to improve deplorable custodial conditions and abusive treatment. The bills backers in Congress explained that they were merely attempting to curtail frivolous lawsuits, ignoring prisoners rights advocates and other experts who cautioned that the new law was overly broad and would certainly result in serious abuses going undetected and uncorrected. In July, Human Rights Watch joined prisoners rights groups in challenging the constitutionality of some provisions of the PLRA in the case of Plyler v. Moore in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit; the case was pending at this writing. In September, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. In correspondence, Human Rights Watch warned legislators and President Clinton that these provisions prevent asylum seekers from exercising their internationally protected right to seek and enjoy asylum and undermine the prohibition on the expulsion or return (refoulement) of refugees as set out in international human rights treaties and U.S. law regarding treatment of asylum seekers. Among other objectionable sections, the legislation contained new summary exclusion procedures that allow immigration officers to decide, on the spot, whether a person arriving at a port of entry without proper documentation has a credible asylum claim. If the asylum claim is not found credible by the officer, an administrative appeal is available presuming the individual knows to appeal without benefit of legal counsel. The new law is based on the flawed presumption that those entering the U.S. without documentation, or with fraudulent papers, do not have legitimate asylum claims. In fact, individuals fleeing persecution often have no opportunity, or ability, to obtain proper documentation.Human Rights Watch also opposed the legislations unreasonable and arbitrary deadlines on asylum applications. Once the bill became law, individuals seeking asylum in the U.S. were required to file an application within one year of arrival. Human Rights Watch has long contended that the many obstacles to filing an asylum claim often prevent asylum seekers with legitimate claims from filing in a timely manner, and that their failure to meet arbitrary deadlines should not affect their cases. In one of the most far-reaching provisions of the new law, the historic role of the federal courts in reviewing Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) decisions was severely restricted. One section of the new law effectively bars class-action lawsuits against the INS, thus eliminating a crucial check on a notoriously mismanaged agency. Just after the bill was signed into law, Attorney General Janet Reno reportedly filed motions to dismiss four of five class-action suits brought by hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who claim they were wrongfully disqualified from the governments 1980s amnesty program.

Immigration Policy and Practice

In addition to the new legislation, other developments made treatment of immigrants within the U.S. a continuing concern for Human Rights Watch. The April 1, 1996 televised beating of two border-crossers by Riverside County sheriff=s deputies, which also featured an audiotape of a California Highway Patrol officer using a racial epithet, exacerbated tensions between Latino communities and proponents of strict anti-immigration policies. The incident also led to renewed calls for new policies to address frequent post-chase beatings by law enforcement agents. A letter from Human Rights Watch to U.S. Attorney General Reno, urging examination of this problem, went unanswered.

We continued to investigate human rights violations committed by personnel of the INS, particularly the U.S. Border Patrol, along the southwestern U.S. border. In June, a Human Rights Watch fact-finding mission to the border region found continuing and serious incidents of the apparent use of excessive force against border-crossers, legal residents and U.S. citizens. In addition to complaints of rough treatment and beatings, we investigated: a Douglas, Arizona Border Patrol agent who reportedly shot, from within his vehicle, at a man on the Mexican side of the border, hitting him in the back; an El Paso, Texas agent under investigation for allegedly sexually assaulting two Guatemalan women, and repeating the offense after summoning a nearby trainee to watch; and Border Patrol agent Charles Vinson, who allegedly raped a Salvadoran woman crossing alone in a remote area near the San Ysidro, California port of entry in December 1995, and who went on to face criminal charges. Vinson had previously avoided dismissal despite shooting dead a seventeen-year-old border-crosser in 1990 and provoking numerous complaints from fellow agents, who regarded him as a Aloose cannon.@

The low priority given to these kinds of human rights violations by the Clinton administration and Congress was troubling in light of the dramatic growth of the INS=s southwest border program in recent years. In 1993, there were approximately 3,400 Border Patrol agents along the southwest border. By the end of Fiscal Year 1996, there were 5,014 agents, and the immigration bill enacted in September 1996 authorized 1,000 new agents for the next five fiscal years, meaning that by Fiscal Year 2001 there should be approximately 10,000 Border Patrol agents C a tripling of the force in an eight-year period. Hiring surges in the past have resulted in the rushed recruitment of individuals unsuitable for any law enforcement work, and in long delays in checking recruits' qualifications and background; under such circumstances, ill-qualified or violent recruits remain undiscovered until beyond the probationary period and become almost impossible to dismiss later.

Furthermore, as thousands of new agents were quickly put in place during 1996, agents being promoted to supervisor positions were not receiving adequate training. INS officials acknowledged that supervisor training programs were overwhelmed, raising the alarming prospect of new, possibly unfit agents managed by untrained supervisors. In addition, Justice Department oversight agencies tasked with monitoring and investigating allegations of abusive treatment were not growing in proportion with the huge increase in INS personnel.

In response to criticisms of the complaints, investigatory and disciplinary procedures used by the INS and the Justice Department=s Office of the Inspector General, the INS convened a Citizens= Advisory Panel (CAP) to review the shortcomings of the current system and to make recommendations to the Office of the Attorney General for improvements. At this writing, eighteen months after its first meeting, the panel was preparing its recommendations. Considering the CAP a worthwhile endeavor to improve flawed procedures, Human Rights Watch participated in many of the panel=s meetings. We remain convinced, however, that external, independent citizen review of complaints against INS personnel is the only way to gauge the extent of abusive conduct and to ensure accountability when violations do occur.

Many detainees in INS custody endured mistreatment, poor conditions, and inadequate legal representation in facilities around the country. The increasing reliance on privately run contract facilities or local jails and state prisons to house individuals in INS custody raised serious questions about the INS=s lax oversight of those institutions. Following the June 1995 detainee uprising at the INS contract facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey C due in large part to poor conditions and mistreatment by the facility=s staff C the INS published a self-critical report, acknowledging the oversight failures at the facility. Yet, in subsequent correspondence with Human Rights Watch, the agency revealed that essential reforms had not yet been authorized or implemented.

The Human Rights Watch Children=s Rights Project conducted an investigation into the treatment of minors in INS custody in California and Arizona. The research focused on issues such as access to information, legal representation, and family members; ability to communicate in the detainee=s native language; assignment to county juvenile detention or remote facilities; duration of detention; and INS cooperation with local advocates and attorneys attempting to assist the children. A report on the findings was in preparation at this writing.

Police Abuse

Abusive conduct by law enforcement personnel was not limited to mistreatment of immigrants and asylum seekers. Police brutality remained one of the most controversial and pervasive human rights problems in the United States in 1996. Police officers in a number of cities were accused of serious human rights violations, including unjustified shootings and severe beatings, with many victims asserting that these abuses were racially motivated. And even while Congress approved funding to hire thousands of new police officers in cities around the country, there was no concomitant effort to improve flawed civilian review boards, police internal investigation procedures, or the low rate of prosecution for criminal civil rights violations. According to the most recent Justice Department national data available, of 8,575 complaints reviewed under the federal civil rights statutes in 1994, only seventy-six cases were filed for prosecution C less than 1 percent.

One aid in quantifying the problem of police abuse would be the collection of data about incidents of excessive force nationwide, as required by the 1994 crime bill. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, an office of the Justice Department, initiated test programs to collect these data, but progress was slow, and it appeared that obvious sources of information, such as civilian review boards that exist in the majority of large cities, were not being utilized.

The Justice Department did pursue its new power to bring civil injunctions against any police department that exhibited a Apattern or practice@ of abusive treatment. In the city of New Orleans, the Justice Department initiated a wide-ranging investigation into misconduct in the notoriously brutal police force. And in October, the Justice Department stated that it was expanding its investigation of the Los Angeles Police Department, focusing on the use of excessive force and racially motivated misconduct. In either city, the Justice Department has the authority to seek a court order to force the department to remedy the problems it may identify.


During 1996, protecting prisoners= rights in the United States became more difficult. At a time when the country's prisons and jails held over 1.6 million people C giving the United States one of the largest incarcerated populations of any country in the world, as well as one of the highest per capita rates of incarceration C legal protections for prisoners kept shrinking. In addition to the Prison Litigation Reform Act described above, the Supreme Court continued eroding past prisoners' rights precedents and exempting prisons from meaningful judicial scrutiny. In Lewis v. Casey, the Supreme Court restricted prisoners' legal remedies by imposing strict procedural requirements on suits challenging a prisoner=s lack of access to the courts. Prisoners must now show that the constitutionally inadequate law libraries or lack of legal assistance in their prisons actually hindered them in litigating a meritorious underlying claim. This put many prisoner litigants in a double bind: it is precisely when the access scheme provided by the prison is most deficient that a prisoner is most likely to be unable to put forth his or her arguments well enough to make that showing.

Conditions in U.S. prisons, meanwhile, remained frequently unacceptable and inhumane. In a January report, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Nigel Rodley wrote, AConditions at certain maximum security facilities were said to result in the inhuman and degrading treatment of the inmates in those facilities.@ The special rapporteur specifically noted reports of poor treatment at the H-Unit of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay prison in California.

In July, as part of the continuing trend toward harsher treatment of criminals and prisoners, Congress began serious consideration of legislation that would allow juveniles to be held with adults in confinement. Human Rights Watch joined with a dozen human rights and children=s rights groups to oppose the legislation; the problematic proposals were eventually dropped. The Human Rights Watch Women=s Rights Project concluded a major investigation into custodial sexual misconduct in U.S. prisons. Research was conducted in California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and the District of Columbia. Researchers investigated prisoners' complaints alleging rape and other sexual abuse committed by prison guards, as well as allegations of poor accountability for guards who engaged in this misconduct. The Georgia findings were included in the July 1996 Human Rights Watch report on human rights abuses in that state (see below).

The Death Penalty

Thirty-two executions were carried out in the U.S. during the first nine months of 1996, a pace short of the record-setting 1995 total of fifty-six. Challenges to the death penalty statute in Texas (a state that accounts for a large percentage of executions each year) and to the habeas corpus provisions in the counterterrorism bill explained the relative decrease. Human Rights Watch wrote to governors and clemency boards as each execution date approached, citing our opposition to capital punishment in all cases and noting particular areas of concern in each case. We also wrote about the application of the death penalty as part of a comprehensive report on human rights abuses in Georgia (see below).

Compliance with International Standards

Since 1994, the U.S. has been party to the Convention Against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Both treaties require reports to the United Nations, describing the nation=s treaty compliance. The U.S. compliance reports on both treaties were due in November 1995, yet, as of mid-November 1996, neither report had been submitted to the relevant United Nations committee. Human Rights Watch wrote to Secretary of State Warren Christopher in October 1996, urging immediate submission of the CERD report and suggesting that the U.S. report cite specific practices or incidents relevant to the treaty=s provisions, rather than recitation of U.S. law that should, but does not always, protect U.S. inhabitants from treatment prohibited by the treaty. Human Rights Watch also reported on racial discrimination in the U.S. criminal justice system to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in April.

Other important human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, remained unratified. Also during the year, the administration took no action toward signing or ratifying core International Labour Organisation conventions intended to protect basic labor rights. This, despite the United States= support for linkage between trade and labor rights at the World Trade Organization and in international trade agreements.

Human Rights and the Olympics

In July, Atlanta, the capital of the southern state of Georgia, hosted the XXVI Olympic Games after boasting in its International Olympic Committee application that it was Afor many the modern capital of human rights.@ In light of this claim, Human Rights Watch and other international and local human rights groups took the opportunity to review the human rights record of Atlanta and the state of Georgia. In our report, Modern Capital of Human Rights? Abuses in the State of Georgia, we found that state officials and public policies contravened fundamental human rights principles in a wide range of settings in Georgia.

For example, Atlanta police officers have used excessive force, including unjustified shootings and severe beatings, and have otherwise abused their power without coming before external civilian review and without punishment through internal department procedures. Georgia=s death penalty law has led to capital punishment primarily for the poor and for African-Americans C particularly when the victim of the crime is white. This discriminatory impact, which has been documented in exhaustive studies excluding for all other variables, has compounded the abuse inherent in the death penalty itself. Drug laws have been enforced disproportionately against black drug offenders, who are arrested for cocaine-related offenses at seventeen times the rate of whites (even though studies show more whites are cocaine offenders) and who receive 98 percent of the life sentences handed down in drug cases.

We also found custodial conditions in the state to be alarming. Many local jails have been so overcrowded and physically deteriorated, and jail officials have neglected prisoners= welfare so shamefully in so many areas, that the U.S. federal government threatened to sue eleven Georgia counties over jail conditions. Women in prison suffered sexual harassment and intimidation, and sometimes rape, at the hands of their guards. And minors in state custody faced extremely poor custodial conditions, have been subjected to cruel restraints and punishment forbidden by international standards, and were held in overcrowded facilities with little educational or other programs to occupy them.

We also found that lesbians and gay men in Georgia faced hostility ranging from harassment under the state=s anti-Asodomy@ law, to openly discriminatory firing of gay employees by state officials and others, to verbal threats and physical attacks; victims of discriminatory treatment in most parts of the state have had no effective recourse, because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not prohibited. The report described a positive development, with repercussions in Georgia and elsewhere, in the U.S. Supreme Court=s decision in Romer v. Evans: the May decision struck down a discriminatory provision of the Colorado state constitution, thus endorsing civil rights protections for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in that state and preventing new laws or policies that would permit discrimination against gay people.

Finally, the report described attempts to limit freedom of expression in Georgia, noting that socially conservative groups, parents, and elected officials have sought to restrict artistic expression and sex education. The free flow of information via electronic communication has also been curtailed: citing concerns ranging from terrorism to trademark theft, Georgia lawmakers passed laws that restrict rights to free expression and privacy on-line.

Neither the governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, nor Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell responded to our report, despite the inclusion of scores of detailed recommendations and letters accompanying the report to their offices, expressing interest in working together to ameliorate the problems we identified. In a positive development, the U.S. Department of Justice began a "pre-investigation" to determine whether there was sufficient information in our Georgia report to warrant opening a formal investigation into the children's institutions. This investigation would be similar to one initiated by the Justice Department earlier in 1996 into deplorable conditions in Louisiana=s juvenile detention facilities; that investigation was spurred by a Human Rights Watch/Children=s Rights Project report released in 1995.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page