HRW's 665-page 2013 World Report, assessing human-rights progress during the past year across 90 countries, acknowledged that the U.S. “has a vibrant civil society and media that enjoys strong constitutional protections.” But, despite appearances, HRW noted millions of the most vulnerable Americans are subjected to human-rights abuses every day.
“The victims of abuse are typically the weakest and most vulnerable in US society: immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, children, the elderly, the poor, and prisoners,” the report stated.
The Flawed Prison System
The report made a pointed critique of the U.S. prison system, explaining its enormous prison population and frequent use of the death penalty, solitary confinement, and long-term juvenile incarceration.
The U.S. maintained the world’s largest prison population in 2010, when about 1.6 million people were locked behind bars. In particular, longer sentences -- frequently the result of mandatory minimum requirements attached to a growing number of crimes -- has resulted in an overwhelming number of elderly prisoners. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of prisoners over the age of 65 grew 94 times faster than the total population of offenders sentenced during that same three-year period. As HRW pointed out, prison facilities are often ill-equipped to care for aging inmates.
At least 2,600 youth offenders were serving life-without-parole sentences last year, many of whom were placed in long-term solitary confinement.
“Solitary confinement provokes serious mental and physical health problems, and undermines teenagers’ rehabilitation,” HRW said, adding that almost every minor serving a life sentence had reported physical or sexual abuse by inmates or corrections officers.
In another blow against human rights, the report criticized the disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities continuing to flood the criminal-justice system. About 3.1 percent of African-American men and 1.3 percent of Latino men are behind bars, compared to just 0.5 percent of white men, an imbalance that may contribute to the stigma minorities can face in employment, housing, public benefits, and even voting rights.
“Whites, African Americans, and Latinos have comparable rates of drug use, but are arrested and prosecuted for drug offenses at vastly different rates. African Americans are arrested for drug offenses, including possession, at three times the rate of white men,” HRW reported.
Treatment Of Noncitizens
Programs such as the federal government’s Secure Communities initiatives, aiming at the arrest and deportation of illegal immigrants who have criminal records, could breed distrust of immigrant communities by incorrectly branding them as dangerous criminals.
“Federal government has portrayed these programs as focused on dangerous criminals, but most immigrants deported through Secure Communities are categorized by the federal government as 'noncriminal' or lower-level offenders. These programs may exacerbate distrust of police in immigrant communities, and thus may deter crime victims from seeking protection and redress. Some local and state governments have sought to limit the reach of these programs,” the report stated.
Moreover, thousands of undocumented women and girl farmworkers face a high risk of sexual violence and harassment. Most of the victims do not report those crimes because of fear of deportations or reprisals by employers.
Child Labor On Farms
Hundreds of thousands of children work on American farms, with HRW noting those workers are exempt from minimum-age and maximum-hour requirements that apply to all other working minors under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.
“As a result, child farmworkers, most of them Latino, often work 10 or more hours a day and risk pesticide poisoning, heat illness, injuries, lifelong disabilities, and death. Of children under age 16 who suffered fatal occupational injuries in 2010, 75 percent worked in crop production. Thousands more are injured each year. Federal protections that do exist are often not enforced,” the group reported.
In addition, HRW said millions of American workers are harmed by a dearth of paid family leave, a lack of breastfeeding accommodation, and discrimination against workers with family responsibilities.
Although the advocacy group praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, which will expand health insurance to millions, it still took issue with the nation’s subpar system of sex education. For instance, HRW reported some states still have criminal-justice policies that say condoms are evidence of prostitution, making sex workers in some metropolitan areas reluctant to carry that protection.
People With Disabilities
As was widely reported last month, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Republicans blocked the ratification of the treaty, which aimed at ending international discrimination against the disabled.
HRW did not take issue with the almost unprecedented number of abortion restrictions enacted by state legislatures in 2012. But it did take issue with Congress’ inability to renew the Violence Against Women Act, the primary federal law providing legal protection and services to victims of domestic and sexual violence.
“At this writing, the congressional renewal process had stalled due to disagreements over protections for immigrant victims; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) victims; and victims on tribal lands,” HRW said.
The epidemic of sexual violence against women in the military -- the Pentagon has said there are 19,000 sexual assaults in the armed services each year -- and the severe lack of criminal prosecution was highlighted.
Public attitudes regarding homosexuality, particularly gay marriage, are shifting -- as evidenced by the November elections, when three states passed ballot initiatives legalizing same-sex marriage.
But the Defense of Marriage Act continues to prohibit recognition of same-sex relationships at the federal level, even though marriage is now legal in nine states as well as the District of Columbia. Plus, in May, North Carolina became the 30th state to include a ban on gay marriage in its state constitution.
Federal law currently offers no protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Counterterrorism And Torture
HRW has several criticisms of the U.S. when it comes to the nation’s policies surrounding counterterrorism and torture.
It took particular issue with the National Defense Authorization Act, which permits the military to indefinitely detain, without trial, suspected terrorists captured inside the U.S.
“The NDAA reaffirmed congressional restrictions on transfer of detainees from Guantanamo, with minor changes. At this writing, no detainee has been transferred out of Guantanamo under that regime,” HRW reported.
President Barack Obama’s failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the New York Police Department’s secret surveillance of the city’s Muslim population, and the Obama administration’s targeted killings via drone strikes were all classified as human-rights failures.
“John Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, asserted that targeted killings were justified against anyone who is ‘part of’ al Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces, even in situations far from a recognized battlefield,” HRW said. “This definition, if applied, would exceed the scope of targeting permitted under the laws of war. CIA involvement in many drone strikes has meant little or no accountability for possible laws of war violations.”