Human rights in the United States

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The United States , enacted in , provides a list of basic rights. The text is subject to judicial interpretation that may modify these rights in practice.
The United States Bill of Rights, enacted in 1791, provides a list of basic rights. The text is subject to judicial interpretation that may modify these rights in practice.

While human rights in the United States are generally perceived today as being on par or nearly on par with most developed countries, critics argue that the United States has room for improvement.

Historically, the nation's human rights record has been marked by contradiction. This is best illustrated by the United States Constitution, which created what was at the time a progressive democracy providing unprecedented social and economic rights for its citizens. The same document, however, entrenched slavery, which was not abolished until seventy years later after the American Civil War.

Criticism and negative views of America are sometimes described as "anti-Americanism", a charge which especially was pursued at the start of the Cold War by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which investigated suspected Communists in the federal government, academia, and the arts. American human rights recently have come under scrutiny for the government's positions on capital punishment, police brutality, the War on Drugs, and sexual morality. Finer points which are sometimes debated are a perceived media concentration that might drown out voices of dissent, and details of the justice system—minimum sentencing guidelines, coercion into plea bargains and inadequate public defenders.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, pressure from the government for more surveillance of the general population has led to heightened criticism of the government's violation of citizens' privacy and of control measures that do not respect prisoner dignity. Using post-9/11 security measures, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service prevented Yusuf Islam, a leading figure in the British Muslim community and noted peace activist, from entering the country on allegations that he was a security threat.



The history of human rights in the United States should begin with some reference to the birth of the nation itself and what was called "American experiment".

In the early years of the United States, slavery and indentured servitude were legal in roughly half of the states. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1857 in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford that a slave who had entered a non-slave state did not automatically gain freedom by doing so, a ruling which was seen as upholding slavery. Slavery was outlawed by constitutional amendment after the American Civil War in 1865.

In some areas until the mid-20th century various segregation law discriminated between white and black Americans. There were also the so-called "Jim Crow" laws that effectively denied blacks rights that whites could take as granted. It took until 1968 for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule nearly all such laws unconstitutional. The same court ruled in the following decades in favor of laws and practices such as affirmative action which are believed by some to discriminate against white people.


Death penalty

Missing image
Execution chamber at the state prison in Starke, Florida. The only places in the world still employing the electric chair are the U.S. states of Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The U.S. death penalty receives controversy from both within the U.S. and outside of it. Many regard the death penalty as inhumane and criticize it for its irreversibility. Additionally, a racial tilt to its application is suspected by some, since although blacks form only 13% of the total American population [1] (, 42% of those on death row are black (2003 [2] ( These concerns recently prompted the governor of Illinois to place a moratorium on all executions in his state.

Up until 2005, it was legal in United States to execute juvenile offenders. Since 1990 Amnesty International recorded 38 executions of offenders who committed their crimes when they were under the age of 18, 19 of them in the USA. Along with Somalia, the United States is one of the two sovereign states in the world not to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits use of the death penalty against child offenders. [3] ( On March 1, 2005 the United States Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that it is unconstitutional to execute juvenile killers, commuting the death sentences of 72 murderers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes.


The US has one of the highest percentages of people in prison of any modern nation—as of 2004, the second-highest in the world. [4] ( Roughly 2 million, or roughly 1 out of every 150, Americans are in jail at any moment.

Because the legal system has imposed liability upon employers for negligence in hiring ex-convicts and in supervising them, many employers now make background checks a mandatory part of the hiring process. As a result, prisoners who are released often have difficulty finding jobs and often return to crime to support themselves.

Racial minorities, notably Blacks and Hispanics, are over-represented in the US's prison population. According to Human Rights Watch, "black men [in 2000] were eight times more likely to be in prison than white men". [5] ( According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, approximately 40.2% of the prison population is black, while 32.1% of the population is Hispanic, [6] ( with several enquiries and critics commenting negatively on the use of racial profiling and the overrepresentation of minorities in American prisons.

Sexual abuse in US prisons is believed by many to be widespread. It has been fought against by organizations such as Stop Prisoner Rape, some of whom allege that some wardens use sexual abuse as a control tool in the prisons.

The U.S. also has "supermax prisons", where the most dangerous prisoners are kept in soundproofed solitary confinement for 23 hours a day with almost no human contact. They are often defended as appropriate for mass murderers, but there have been reports that some nonviolent prisoners have been sent to supermaxes.

In many states, those convicted of felony offenses are banned from voting. These laws have a much greater effect on minorities, especially African Americans, as they are more likely to be convicted of felonies. In some US cities, for example, half of all black men cannot vote, and in states such as Florida and Alabama, as many as a third of black men cannot vote. For this reason, the constitutionality of this practice is likely to be tested in the U.S. Supreme Court in due course. (see Count Every Vote Act)

National security exceptions

The US government has on several occasions claimed exceptions to guaranteed rights on grounds of protecting national security. These exceptions are often invoked in wartime or during international conflicts short of war (such as the Cold War). In some instances the federal courts have allowed these exceptions, while in others the courts have decided that the national security interest was insufficient.

Sedition laws have sometimes placed restrictions on freedom of expression. The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by president John Adams during an undeclared naval conflict with France, allowed the government to punish "false" statements about the government and to deport "dangerous" immigrants. They were used by the Federalist Party to harass supporters of the Democratic-Republican Party. Another broad sedition law was passed during World War I. Its provisions were so strict that one Hollywood director was imprisoned for making a film about the American Revolution because it depicted the British unfavorably. These laws lapsed or became inactive at the end of the conflict.

Presidents have claimed the power to imprison summarily, under military jurisdiction, those suspected of being combatants for states or groups at war against the United States. This power was invoked by Abraham Lincoln in the American Civil War to imprison Maryland secessionists. In that case, the Supreme Court protested that only Congress could suspend the right of habeas corpus, and the detainees were released. During World War II, thousands of Japanese-Americans were interned on fears that Japan might use them as saboteurs. In the recent campaign against terrorist groups, the government has detained suspected al Qaeda affiliates like Yaser Esam Hamdi, who also had his citizenship revoked.

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution forbids unreasonable search and seizure without a warrant, but some administrations have claimed exceptions to this rule to investigate alleged conspiracies against the government. During the Cold War, the FBI established COINTELPRO to infiltrate and disrupt left-wing organizations, including those that supported the rights of black Americans. More recently the USA PATRIOT Act has been attacked as eroding Fourth Amendment protections.

National security, as well as other concerns like unemployment, have sometimes led the U.S. to toughen its generally liberal immigration policy. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 all but banned Chinese immigrants, who were accused of crowding out American workers. Today foreign nationals can be detained or deported for minor infractions, although deporation is uncommon. The government is sometimes accused of skirting the required legal procedures. Tracking of immigrants has also increased as part of the anti-terrorism campaign, so that foreigners arriving by air are now subject to mandatory fingerprinting and photography. Since 2002, male adults from any of two dozen countries, most of them Muslim, have been subject to Special Registration. The U.S. is sometimes criticized for the effects of its border control efforts; for instance, between 1998 and 2004, 1,954 persons are officially reported to have died along the United States Mexico barrier.

Freedom of Expression

In contrast to many democracies, the United States does not prohibit the desecration of its flag (or of any other symbol, for that matter). The Flag Burning Amendment sought to give Congress the power to ban acts of desecration against the American Flag, but it narrowly failed to pass. Prior restraint is recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional on its face, and there are no bans on extremist left-wing or right-wing parties (e.g. the Communist Party or Neo-Nazi parties). American libel laws are also far more liberal than those of other major democracies, such as the United Kingdom. In reaction to allegations of mishandling of the Koran in Newsweek magazine, Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr has moved to introduced a law ( to protect the Koran. Some fear this is an attempt to limit freedom of expression.

Amnesty International assessment

Amnesty International states for the year 2000:

Police brutality, disputed shootings and ill-treatment in prisons and jails were reported. In May the U.N. Committee against Torture considered the initial report of the USA on implementation of the U.N. Convention against Torture. Eighty-five prisoners were executed in 14 states bringing to 683 the total number of people executed since 1976. Those executed included individuals who were children under 18 at the time of their crimes, and the mentally impaired.

China's assessment

Main article: China's assessment of the human rights record of the United States

Annually since 1999 the People's Republic of China has been publishing reports on the annual human rights record in the United States of America for the preceding year. This is in response to the practice of the United States of publishing similar "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" about almost every country, except the United States. Like the reports from the US State Department, these reports are based largely on evidence published by Western media, or by US governmental authorities themselves. They are entitled "Human Rights Record of the United States", and published by the Information Office of the State Council. The latest report, covering 2004 noted in particular that:

Racial discrimination is deeply rooted in the US...permeating every aspect of society.
It said that people of color are generally poor, with living conditions much worse than that of white people. According to The Guardian newspaper on October 9, the average net assets of a white family was US$88,000 in 2002, 11 times that of a family of Latin American ancestry, and nearly 15 times that of a family of African ancestry.
Racial prejudice is ubiquitous in judicial fields, the report said. The US Department of Justice said in November that non-white people accounted for over 70 percent of inmates.

See also

External links


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