The United States made some progress implementing more rights-respecting policies. It enacted a law, the Inflation Reduction Act, which advances the right to health and takes steps to address the climate crisis. However, officials need to take bolder steps to dismantle the systemic racism baked into many US institutions and structures; meet the challenges posed by climate change, threats to democracy domestically and abroad, and health crises like the Covid-19 pandemic; and ensure respect for rights. Entrenched, unequal power structures—largely based on racism, white supremacy, and economic inequality—are barriers to meaningful change.
The administration of US President Joe Biden promised reforms to harsh and abusive border policies, but many have been delayed. On top of migrant status, race and ethnicity are primary factors predicting who is subjected to harsh immigration policies such as expulsion, detention, deportation, and extreme anti-asylum policies. Despite pockets of criminal legal system reform, many authorities continue to raise alarmist and often unfounded claims about rising crime to pursue policies that rely primarily on law enforcement and punishment instead of addressing underlying needs, such as improving access to housing, health, voluntary mental health services, and educational opportunities.
Those experiencing abuses increasingly struggle to find relief in the US court system, including before the US Supreme Court, which has increasingly issued rulings undermining rights protections, like the 2022 ruling undoing constitutional protections for abortion access.
Direct financial assistance and relief measures in response to the Covid-19 pandemic helped to ease economic conditions temporarily, but racial disparities persist in access to adequate health care, water, education, employment, and housing.
Despite unprecedented support in Congress and significant movement on reparations initiatives at the state and local levels, the federal government failed to create a commission to study the legacy of enslavement and develop reparations proposals.
In light of Congress’s inaction, racial justice advocates urged the Biden administration to create such a commission by executive order by Juneteenth 2022. In August 2022, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) concluded that the US had failed to implement international anti-racism legal standards. Among other recommendations, the UN CERD urged the US, for the first time, to establish a commission to study and develop reparations proposals.
In May, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, county judge denied in part a motion to dismiss made by the city of Tulsa and other defendants as part of a lawsuit brought on behalf of survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre for damages and continuing harm stemming from it. The denial is the first time a case for reparations for the massacre has made it past the motion to dismiss stage and will enable the last three known survivors of the massacre, all over 100 years old, to have the merits of their case heard in court.
Following the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, networks of white supremacists and far-right extremists have expanded and broadened their presence online. Marginalized communities fear for their safety amid a continued rise in reported hate crimes in the first half of 2022, including shootings motivated by white supremacist ideology.
Poverty and Inequality
Income inequality increased in 2021, driven primarily by pre-tax and transfer declines in low-wage and working-class incomes. But pandemic-related social spending contributed to the national poverty rate falling that year. Stimulus payments, an expanded Child Tax Credit, and more generous unemployment insurance kept millions of adults out of poverty and nearly halved child poverty, which fell to an all-time low.
But this historic reduction in poverty is reversing. Many of the programs that brought relief were temporary and have since ended, and the US government has failed to enact more permanent structural reforms. For example, the government’s failure to renew the Child Tax Credit, which expired in December 2021, pushed 3.7 million children into poverty.
Black, Latinx, and Native American households continue to have poverty rates more than double that of non-Latinx white households, emphasizing persistent race- and ethnicity-based disparities in income, wealth, debt, and employment.
Criminal Legal System
Despite gradual reductions in incarceration rates since 2009, the US continues to have the world’s highest reported incarceration rate, with nearly 2 million people held in state and federal jails and prisons on any given day, and millions more on parole and probation.
Black and brown people remain vastly over-represented in jails and prisons, many of which failed to provide sufficient protections against Covid-19 infection. Reported data seven months after the rollout of vaccines showed that just over half had been vaccinated. More than 600,000 people in US prisons have contracted the virus and over 2,900 have died from it. Many jurisdictions reduced incarceration in response to the pandemic, but detained populations began returning to their pre-pandemic numbers in 2021 even as Delta variant cases surged.
Despite widespread calls for systemic reform during the summer of 2020, especially to reduce over-reliance on policing and address societal problems with investment in supportive services, few jurisdictions have enacted meaningful measures. Some localities have made efforts to deploy mental health care professionals instead of police in appropriate circumstances; some have funded non-law enforcement violence interrupters. However, police budgets overall have not shrunk. Congress has not even passed the weak reforms proposed in the federal Justice in Policing Act.
In 2022, less than half of US police departments provided data on their use of force, necessitating nongovernmental data collection and analysis. In 2022 alone, police killed over 400 people. On a per capita basis, police kill Black people at three times the rate they kill white people.
Children in the Criminal, Youth and Family Court Systems
Despite a 73 percent drop in child arrests since the mid-1990s, a high number of children continue to be incarcerated each year, with over 240,000 instances of detention documented in 2019, a March report by the Sentencing Project showed. There was a 9 percent increase between 2010 and 2019 in the likelihood of detention, which grew even more common for Black, Latinx, and Asian/Pacific Islander children, while holding steady for white and Indigenous children.
Slow progress continues towards ending life without parole sentences for children. According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, 32 states have no child serving the sentence or have banned it for children.
Child welfare systems in the US too often respond to circumstances of poverty with punishment, charging families with neglect and removing children from their parents instead of providing support to help keep families together, a joint Human Rights Watch and American Civil Liberties Union report released in November documented. Every three minutes a child is removed from their home and placed in the foster system. Black and Indigenous people and those living in poverty are disproportionately affected.
Drug overdose deaths continued to rise according to the latest available data, with more than 107,000 deaths reported in the US from December 2020 to December 2021, roughly a 15 percent increase over the prior year. Overdose deaths increased significantly among Black and Indigenous populations, by 44 and 39 percent, respectively.
The Biden administration included investments in harm reduction approaches that offer those using drugs health-centered care and access to voluntary treatment, as part of its inaugural 2022 National Drug Control Strategy, the first time a US administration has done so. However, these investments were small compared to others and the administration and states continue to rely to a significant degree on criminalization to solve issues associated with problematic drug use, even though harm reduction strategies are proven to be more effective.
In October, Biden announced that he would pardon thousands of people convicted of simple marijuana possession in the federal system and order a review of how marijuana is treated under federal law. The pardon excluded non-citizens, even though marijuana convictions often trigger deportation, causing devastating harm to many people with strong links to the United States.
Rights of Non-Citizens
The Biden administration continued to arbitrarily expel thousands of people entering the US through the southern border, without respecting their right to seek asylum, under the abusive Title 42 policy. Since the policy was introduced in March 2020, those expelled included thousands of children, including at least 7,500 under age 4. Haitians, Africans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and people of many other countries and regions have been expelled. The administration planned to terminate the policy in May, but a federal judge blocked it from doing so.
In October, the administration decided to apply Title 42 to Venezuelans. The administration also continued to force non-Mexicans to wait for their asylum hearings in dangerous Mexican cities under its inherently problematic Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly known as “Remain in Mexico,” including asylum seekers at particular risk of harm who were entitled to exceptions, such as LGBT people, and people living with disabilities, HIV, or other chronic health conditions. After a June 30 Supreme Court ruling, the administration finally ended the Remain in Mexico program, but it used procedures that violated some asylum seekers’ due process rights.
The administration closed some immigration detention centers and ended some “zero tolerance” policies put in place by former President Donald Trump; however, as of September, about 25,000 non-citizens were still being detained. The administration continued to increase its use of electronic monitoring devices and other methods of surveillance of immigrants as it released more than 300,000 non-citizens from immigration detention. Human Rights Watch has found many methods of electronic surveillance used by the US to be abusive and unnecessary and called for a ban on ankle monitors and any devices that provide continuous location tracking.
State officials from Texas, Arizona, and Florida bused and flew migrants from the southwestern border to cities in distant states without regard for the likely location of their relatives or court hearings. Texas Governor Greg Abbott continued targeting suspected migrants for arrest and incarceration under Operation Lone Star, a discriminatory and abusive $4 billion border policy.
The Department of Homeland Security announced designations or extensions of Temporary Protected Status for Afghanistan, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Myanmar, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela—protecting people in the US originating from these countries from deportation for a set period. As of October, US authorities had not remedied abuses Human Rights Watch documented in February against scores of Cameroonian asylum seekers.
Health and Human Rights
In 2022, over 230,000 people in the US died from Covid-19. In September, President Biden declared the Covid-19 pandemic “over,” despite nearly 3,000 people dying from the virus that week. Biden’s statements reflect ongoing inconsistency in the US’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout 2022, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed the parameters of its Covid-19 cautions while rolling back protections, sending a worrying signal that a leading health authority is not prioritizing the protection of marginalized groups from illness and death.
Soaring prices and inadequate health insurance have created a crisis of unaffordable medicine in the US, which undermines the right to health, drives people into financial distress and debt, and disproportionately affects socially and economically marginalized people. Despite its shortcomings, the US government’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act will advance the right to health for millions of people by lowering drug costs for people over 65, and make private health insurance more affordable for people with low and middle-incomes.
Democratic institutions and election administrators contended with baseless claims of election fraud. Several states passed laws that sought to limit who may vote and which votes are counted, opened the door to partisan actors interfering with elections, and potentially enabled criminal prosecutions of election administrators. These restrictions on the right to vote disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and Latinx individuals.
In December, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in Moore v. Harper, a case that threatened to cut off avenues of recourse for voting rights violations connected to electoral districting. Conversely, several states expanded voter protection, including initiatives to increase voting by mail, to protect election workers, and to ease voter registration.
Soon after election day, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s international observation mission reported that the November 8 elections “were competitive and professionally managed,” but noted that “efforts to undermine voters’ trust in the electoral process by baselessly questioning its integrity can result in systemic challenges.”
Climate Change Policy and Impacts
The US is currently the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter and the country that has most contributed to the climate crisis.
In August, the US enacted the Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant single piece of legislation the country has passed to address the climate crisis. The act sets the country on track to meet its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, but this target is not sufficient to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Further, the Inflation Reduction Act provides considerable support to the fossil fuel industry, putting people at the front lines of fossil fuel production and those already harmed by climate change at further risk.
In the US, heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires, and other extreme weather events linked to climate change disproportionately impacted people with low incomes as well as Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, exacerbating existing structural inequities. Authorities have not adequately protected at-risk populations—including pregnant people, people with disabilities, and older people—from foreseeable impacts.
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
In June, the Supreme Court, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, overturned the 50-year constitutional guarantee of abortion access. More than half of all US states are poised to ban abortion and at time of writing, 18 states had already criminalized or restricted abortion.
Following the ruling, President Biden issued two executive orders to safeguard access to reproductive healthcare services. He also established an interagency Task Force on Reproductive Health Care Access to coordinate efforts across the federal government to protect access to reproductive rights.
In its Concluding Observations, the UN CERD raised concerns about the impact of systemic racism, along with intersecting factors including gender and race, on the ability of women and girls to access comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services without discrimination. Lack of access to health insurance and care contributed to higher rates of maternal and cervical cancer deaths than in comparable countries, with Black women dying at higher rates than others.
Disability and Older People’s Rights
As of September, 157,898 out of 1,045,904 Covid-19 deaths were recorded in long-term residential facilities, where only just over half of residents were up to date with vaccines. In March, in his first State of the Union Address, President Biden pledged to reduce the use of chemical restraints—the misuse of medications to control behavior—in nursing homes, address staff shortages and inadequate training, improve sub-standard services, and increase accountability. In August, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services continued to allow nursing homes to employ uncertified staff.
In September, over opposition from disability, racial justice, peer-led, and other groups, including Human Rights Watch, California put into place a measure that allows family members, police, outreach workers, and others, to involuntarily refer people to the jurisdiction of a newly established, deceptively named “CARE Court” system. The involuntary referral can result in an order from a judge exerting power over fundamental areas of a person’s life, including medication, housing, and other services and support, in contravention of the right to informed consent, health, and legal capacity.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Lawmakers in US states introduced more than 150 bills targeting transgender people, particularly transgender children, threatening their rights and health. Indiana, South Dakota, and eight other states enacted laws prohibiting trans children from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. Alabama and Oklahoma passed laws barring trans children from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. In 2022, 20 states introduced “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bills, which restrict discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools; Alabama and Florida enacted them.
Officials in Texas attempted to criminalize gender-affirming care. While Texas’s orders were blocked by a state judge, Arizona and Alabama passed legislation banning gender-affirming care for trans youth. Nine states continue to explicitly exclude gender-affirming care from Medicaid coverage. continue to explicitly exclude gender-affirming care from Medicaid coverage.
Trans people and healthcare providers who provide gender-affirming care continue to face high levels of violence and harassment; an increasing trend of online anti-LGBT rhetoric in 2022 resulted in serious offline consequences.
Growing anti-LGBT legislation and sentiment is particularly concerning following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which has rendered LGBT parental rights, same-sex marriage, and consensual same-sex conduct vulnerable targets. In response, the House of Representatives passed the Respect for Marriage Act which would require federal and state governments to recognize legally performed same-sex marriages. At time of writing, the bill has not been voted on in the Senate.
The United States responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February by imposing unprecedented sanctions on Russian authorities, other individuals, and entities and sending over $18 billion in military equipment to Ukraine. Facts about how the weapons are being used and by whom are severely lacking.
In March, the US launched a $320 million European Democratic Resilience Initiative aimed, in part, at defending the human rights of people in Ukraine and neighboring states. In April, the US led efforts that suspended Russia from the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). The Ukraine conflict spurred renewed attention to justice mechanisms, with Congressional interest in cooperating with the International Criminal Court (ICC) and creating jurisdiction in the US for war crimes committed abroad regardless of the alleged perpetrator’s or victim’s nationality.
In January, the US began a three-year term on the HRC. In September, the US and allies proposed a debate there on a report by the UN high commissioner for human rights describing the Chinese government’s targeting of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang as apparent crimes against humanity. In June, entry into force of the United States Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act established a rebuttable presumption that goods from Xinjiang are made from forced labor and should be banned. The US also engaged in a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics hosted by Beijing.
In March, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken formally determined that the Myanmar military’s abuses against ethnic Rohingya Muslims constituted genocide. Blinken has not made any determination on the abuses committed in Ethiopia’s Tigray region despite calls from Congressional leadership to do so.
The Biden administration released three strategies to address conditions that often lead to rights abuses: a new conflict prevention and stability effort; a strategy to “anticipate, prevent, and respond” to mass violence; and a Strategy on Countering Corruption that supports civil society in exposing corruption.
After withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2021, the US created Operation Allies Welcome to resettle Afghans including those who worked for the US government. In September, it refocused the program on certain categories of Afghans abroad who lack visa options.
After the Taliban takeover, the US revoked the credentials of the Afghan Central Bank, thereby cutting it off from the international banking system, citing illegitimate rule and ongoing rights abuses. In February, President Biden blocked $7 billion of Afghanistan’s reserves and, in September, moved half of those monies to a new fund to address growing famine concerns. In July, the US killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in Kabul.
In August, Blinken launched a strategy for sub-Saharan Africa prioritizing partnership and democratic values. While in Rwanda, Blinken raised concerns about Rwandan support for the M23 armed group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, political repression, and the flawed trial and detention of US resident Paul Rusesabagina.
Despite new authority to sanction persons or entities responsible for rights abuses in northern Ethiopia, the US made no designations in 2022. In January, the US terminated Ethiopia’s trade privileges under the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) over gross human rights violations by the government and other warring parties in northern Ethiopia. In Sudan, the Biden administration sanctioned a militarized police unit for serious human rights abuses on protesters since the coup on October 25, 2021, but took no further action against individuals or Sudanese authorities for the abuses.
The US sold arms and provided security assistance to countries with poor human rights records including Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually, though President Biden withheld $130 million of a possible $300 million that Congress conditioned on human rights progress in 2021. Senator Patrick Leahy blocked an additional $75 million to Egypt, citing “insufficient progress” on treatment of political prisoners. The US sells more military equipment to Saudi Arabia than to any other country and gives the Philippines the most military grants and loans in Asia, despite both governments’ well-documented abuses. Nigeria receives significant US military assistance though its security forces commit abuses.
Broad US sanctions on Iran remain, though the US issued a general license that will allow technology companies to provide communications services to Iranians more freely. The US Department of State publicly condemned the death in September of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, which sparked mass protests throughout Iran, and imposed sanctions on Iran’s Morality Police and others.
The Biden administration condemned the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aqla, who was shot while covering an Israeli army raid in the West Bank city of Jenin on May 11. Multiple independent investigations, including by the Washington Post, CNN, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that an Israeli soldier likely killed her. In November, the FBI launched an investigation into her death. Israel acknowledged in September that Abu Aqla was probably shot by an Israeli soldier but said that, if so, the killing was accidental and that it would not participate in the US probe.
The US failed to condemn Israeli authorities for raiding and issuing closure orders for the offices of seven prominent Palestinian civil society organizations in August, after also failing to condemn Israeli authorities’ outlawing of six of the groups last year.
In June, the US announced a policy that prohibits US production and acquisition of antipersonnel landmines as well as their use and stockpiling outside of the Korean Peninsula. The move largely aligns US policy with the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which the US has not joined. The US did not review its policy on cluster munitions which are prohibited by the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.
In October, the US tightened frameworks governing counterterrorism strikes. The classified rules reportedly restrict strikes to known individuals and when there is “near certainty” that no civilians are present. The policy reverses President Trump’s more relaxed policy but maintains problematic operations outside of recognized armed conflicts. In January, following an investigation by The New York Times and criticism from others about civilian harm as a result of US operations, the Pentagon launched a plan to address inadequacies in investigations and casualty response, though gaps remain including on accountability for civilian casualties.
President Biden pledged to close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay but 36 foreign Muslim men remain, most detained for more than two decades without charge or trial. Prosecutions of five Guantanamo detainees charged in the attacks of September 11, 2001, were stalled in flawed military commissions. The defendants were in talks to drop the death penalty in exchange for guilty pleas with life sentences.