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Human rights in the United States

The Statue of Liberty. Given to mark the friendship established during the American Revolution between France and the United States, the symbolism has grown to include freedom and democracy.

The human rights record of the United States is a controversial and complex issue. The United States has been praised for its progressive human rights record by international watchdog organizations and is considered to be among the world's most free nations, although it has faced some criticism for certain policies and practices.

Historically, the United States has been committed to the principle of liberty and has sheltered many political and economic refugees in times of international strife. It has a powerful and independent judiciary and a constitution that enforces separation of powers to prevent tyranny. Legally, human rights within the United States are those rights recognized by the Constitution of the United States and those recognized by treaties ratified by the United States Senate as well as certain rights articulated by the Congress of the United States. The Constitution and treaties are generally interpreted by the judicial branch and particularly the Supreme Court. Human rights within the United States are thus largely determined by the judiciary.

Internationally, the United States was central to the creation of the United Nations and to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Much of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was modeled in part on the U.S. Bill of Rights. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, the US has participated in few of the international human rights treaties, covenants and declarations adopted by the UN member states. In the 21st century, the US actively attempted to undermine the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The United States government has been criticized for human rights violations, particularly in the criminal justice system and where national security is a concern. Some critics (in both friendly and hostile countries) have criticized the U.S. Government for supporting alleged serious human rights abuses, including torture, legal rendition and Cold War assassination.


On September 17, 1787 the United States Constitution asd was adopted, which created a distinguished progressive liberal democracy that guaranteed unprecedented social and economic rights for all its citizenry. The American system seeks to ensure a free society where life, liberty and a host of inalienable human rights are guaranteed by its Constitution, including the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments of the Constitution), and as called for by the Declaration of Independence. Civil liberties in the United States are built on what has been described as a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". This view of human liberty reflects the understanding that fundamental rights are not granted by the state but are inherent to each individual (hence these rights are "unalienable" and each human is "endowed" to them by their Creator). The Constitution recognizes a number of inalienable human rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to keep and bear arms, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to a fair trial by jury.

Constitutional amendments have been enacted as the needs of the society of the United States changed. The Ninth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment recognize that not all human rights have yet been enumerated. The Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act are examples of human rights that were enumerated by Congress well after its writing.

The scope of the legal protections of human rights afforded by the US government is defined by case law, particularly by the precedents of the Supreme Court of the United States. Within the government, the debate about what may or may not prove to be an emerging human right is held in two forums, the United States Congress which may enumerate these or the Supreme Court which may articulate rights not recognized.



The initial applications of the Constitution of the United States did not recognize the human rights of many, particularly African Americans and Native Americans. The US Supreme Court held this in the pivotal decision Dred Scott. From the 1640s until the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the slave states had legal slavery of African Americans. On July 9, 1868, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteed principles of legal egalitarianism; and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 guaranteed equality in public accommodations.

The egalitarian principle was used to challenge Jim Crow laws, which had little success before the 20th centry. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was found unconstitutional in 1883; Separate but equal, which allowed racial segregation in the South was upheld in the Plessy v. Ferguson (1898)decision until the Brown v. Board of Education and Bolling v. Sharpe decisions in 1954. In the 20th centry, Policies disfranchising African Americans such as grandfather clause, literacy test, poll taxes and white primaries were forbidden by the National Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Guinn v. United States decision (1913), the Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections decision (1966) and the Smith v. Allwright decision (1944). In addition Lynching by the Ku Klux Klan of African Americans and their white Republican supporters was relatively common in Southern states, until the middle of the 20th century, when lynching was targeted and ended by the federal government. Native Americans did not have any citizenship rights until the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

Some criticize the overrepresentation of blacks on death row as evidence of the unequal racial application of the death penalty. This over-representation is not limited to capital offenses, in 1992 although blacks account for 12% of the US population, about 34 percent of prison inmates were from this group. In McCleskey v. Kemp, it was alleged the capital sentencing process was administered in a racially discriminatory manner in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 2003, Amnesty International reported those who kill whites are more likely to be executed than those who kill blacks, citing of the 845 people executed since 1977, 80 percent were put to death for killing whites and 13 percent were executed for killing blacks, even though blacks and whites are murdered in almost equal numbers. The "pro-death penalty" Criminal Justice Legal Foundation states that because most murders of African-Americans occur in urban areas where prosecutors are unlikely to seek the death penalty the difference may due to the normal differences between urban and non-urban prosecution practices.


With the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920, the country had its first federal requirement for women to have equal rights with men with respect to voting. The amendment stated that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex". While this does not necessarily guarantee all women the right to vote, as suffrage qualifications are determined by individual states, it does mean that states' suffrage qualifications may not prevent women from voting due to their gender.

The proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution, first adopted in Congress in 1971 but never ratified by the state legislatures, would have constitutionally guaranteed the equal rights of men and women. The amendment was re-introduced in 2007 by Representative Carolyn Maloney (Democrat). There is no constitutional recognition of any gender rights except for the 19th Amendment, but there are constitutional guarantees for equal rights for all.

Men and women have equal employment rights. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 requires equal pay for women, however, sometimes glass ceiling forces women to hold lower positions. In all cases, such restrictions violate US human rights law and the US courts have frequently offered relief to victims.

The United States military does not permit women to serve in some front-line combat units. The Selective Service system does not require women to register for a possible military draft, a policy which was upheld in 1981 by the United States Supreme Court in Rostker v. Goldberg; the Court ruled that this did not constitute discrimination against men.


The Age Discrimination in Employment Act bans employment discrimination against persons 40 years of age or older, and an amendment in 1978 forbids mandatory retirement in most sectors. In the Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents decision, the Supreme Court rules the state governments are exempt from this law. A special interest group AARP, is a powerful lobbying force against age discrimination. The National Youth Rights Association has lobbied for the end to age discrimination.


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 adds similar protections against discrimination to Americans with disabilities as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, in the case Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, the Supreme Court rules its Title I unconstitutional. In the Bragdon v. Abbott decision the Supreme Court extends the protection to people with Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Sexual orientation

The Constitution of the United States explicitly recognizes certain individual rights, but it does not explicitly state any sexual orientation rights. The 14th Amendment recognizes that some human rights may exist but are not yet recognized within constitutional law; for example civil rights for people of color and disability rights were long unrecognized. There may exist additional gender-related civil rights that are presently not recognized by US law. In one survey, "41% of adults agree that "not allowing same-sex couples to marry goes against a fundamental American right that all people should be treated equally, while 47% disagree. Some states have recognized sexual orientation rights which are discussed below.

The United States does not have any substantial body of law relating to marriage, these laws have developed separately within each state. The Full faith and credit clause of the US Constitution ordinarily guarantees the recognition of a marriage performed in one state by another. However, the Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, which affirmed that no state (or other political subdivision within the United States) need recognize a marriage between persons of the same sex, even if the marriage was concluded or recognized in another state and the Federal Government may not recognize same-sex or polygamous marriages for any purpose, even if concluded or recognized by one of the states. The US Constitution denies the federal government any authority to limit state recognition of sexual orientation rights or protections. This federal law only limits the intrastate recognition of individual state laws and does not limit state law in any way.

State laws

Wisconsin was the first state to pass a law explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Massachusetts and California are the only two states that allows same-sex marriage. In 1996, Hawaii ruled same-sex marriage is a Hawaiian constitutional right.


Privacy is not explicitly stated in the United State Constitution. In the Griswold v. Connecticut case, the Supreme Court rules that it is implied in the constitution. In the Roe v. Wade case, the Supreme Court uses privacy rights to overturn most laws against abortion in the United States. In the Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health case, the Supreme Court holds that the patient had a right of privacy to terminate medical treatment. In the Gonzales v. Oregon case, the Supreme Court holds the Federal Controlled Substances Act can not prohibit physician-assisted suicide allowed by the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of criminalizing oral and anal sex in the Bowers v. Hardwick decision, however, it overturned the decision in the Lawrence v. Texas 539 U.S. 558 (2003) case and established the protection to sexual privacy.


United States maintains a presumption of innocence in legal procedures.The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution deals with the rights of criminal suspects. Later the protection is extended to civil cases as well In the Gideon v. Wainwright case, the Supreme Court requires that indigent criminal defendants who unable to afford their own attorney be provided counsel at trial. In the Miranda v. Arizona case, the United States requires police departments inform arrested persons of their rights, which is later called Miranda warning and typically begins with "You have the right to remain silent."

Capital punishment is used in some states. In the Furman v. Georgia case, the Supreme Court overturned arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty on the grounds of Eighth and Fourteenth United States Constitution Amendments that forbid cruel and unusual punishment and due process of law. This decision halts execution of prisoners until the Gregg v. Georgia decision, which approved the retooled procedures be used to enact death penalty after the Furman decision. The decisions in the Roper v. Simmons and Atkins v. Virginia cases ban imposing capital punishment for crimes committed while under the age of 18 or by the mentally handicapped.


Freedom of religion

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the 1) the establishment of a national religion by Congress, or 2) the preference of one religion over another or the support of a religious idea with no identifiable secular purpose, while Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion. The Supreme Court's Lemon v. Kurtzman decision established the "Lemon test" exception, which details the requirements for legislation concerning religion.

This separate principle is used to limit school praying. In the Engel v. Vitale case, Government-directed prayer is ruled unconstitutional. In the Wallace v. Jaffree case, silence moment allocated for praying is also banned. The Supreme Court also ruled Clergy-led prayer public high school graduation and student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games illegal in the Lee v. Weisman case and the Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe case.

This freedom of exercising religion is also limited by Supreme Court rulings. In the Employment Division v. Smith decision, the Supreme Court maintains a "neutral law of general applicability" can be used to limit religion exercises. In the City of Boerne v. Flores decision, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is struck down as exceeding congressional power, however the decision's effect is limited by the Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal decision, which requires states to express compelling interest in prohibiting illegal drug use in religious practices.

Freedom of expression

In the United States, like other liberal democracies, freedom of expression (including speech, media, and public assembly) is an important right and is given special protection. According to Supreme Court precedent, the federal and lower governments may not apply prior restraint to expression, with certain exceptions, such as national security and obscenity. There is no law punishing insults against the government, ethnic groups, or religious groups. Symbols of the government or its officials may be destroyed in protest, including the American flag. Legal limits on expression include:

Some laws remain controversial due to concerns that they infringe on freedom of expression. These include the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. In two high profile cases, grand juries have decided that Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller must reveal their sources in cases involving CIA leaks. Time magazine exhausted its legal appeals, and Mr. Cooper eventually agreed to testify. Ms. Miller was jailed for 85 days before cooperating. U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan ruled that the First Amendment does not insulate Time magazine reporters from a requirement to testify before a criminal grand jury that's conducting the investigation into the possible illegal disclosure of classified information.

As of June 2004, over a dozen foreign journalists who arrived in the United States without an I-visa were apprehended and deported. The journalists were unaware of requirement, as open societies generally do not have a special visa requirement for journalists, as such with countries like Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Zimbabwe.

When citizens' right to peacefully gather was acknowledged and written into the Bill of Rights, there were no clauses about "free speech zones", "permits" to hold demonstrations, or "protest free zones."

A controversial test of free speech rights took place when University of Florida student Andrew Meyer was grabbed by police while asking questions to Senator John Kerry at a Constitution Day forum at the University of Florida in Gainesville on September 17, 2007. Meyer was forced to the ground, tasered, and arrested for "inciting a riot." He was later charged with "resisting an officer" and "disturbing the peace". He was forced to apologize to the University and the police to avoid more time in jail.

In Reporters Without Borders’ 2006 worldwide press freedom index, United States is ranked 53rd out of 168. This was due to the concerns by reporters that the wartime restrictions relating to the Global War on Terrorism were limiting access of the press.

Freedom of movement

Chapter 4 of the Articles of Confederation guarantees the freedom of movement to free citizens except paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice. However, escaped slaves were not recognized as free citizens. The Article Four of the United States Constitution removes the restriction on paupers and vagabonds, but fugitive slaves were still limited until the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed. The Fourteenth Amendment extends the freedom to all persons within United States' jurisdictions. In the Shapiro v. Thompson case, the decision establishes new residents' welfare rights and a fundamental "right to travel" in U.S. law. In the Oregon v. Mitchell case, the Supreme Court establishes new residents' voting rights in presidential and vice-presidential elections.

The Supreme Court maintaines this principle by striking down state and local act of settlement laws. In the Edwards v. California case, a California law prohibiting the bringing of a non-resident "indigent person" into the state was ruled unconstitutional. In the United States v. Cassiagnol case, laws banning wandering on public property was ruled unconstitutional. Both a Jacksonville vagrancy ordinance that criminalize nightwalking, habtitually living without visible means of support and a New York ordinance that criminalize wandering near public transportation stations were ruled unconstitutional in the Papachristou v. Jacksonville and People v. Brightcases.

National security exceptions

The United States government has declared martial law, suspended (or claimed exceptions to) some rights on national security grounds, typically in wartime and conflicts (such as the United States Civil War, Cold War or the War against Terror). 70,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were legally interned during WWII under Executive Order 9066. In some instances the federal courts have allowed these exceptions, while in others the courts have decided that the national security interest was insufficient. Presidents Lincoln, Wilson, and F.D. Roosevelt ignored such judicial decisions.

Historical restrictions

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. The Federalist Party used these acts to harass supporters of the Democratic-Republican Party. While Woodrow Wilson was president, another broad sedition law called the Sedition Act of 1918, was passed during World War I. It also caused the arrest and ten year sentencing of Socialist Party of America Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs for speaking out against the atrocities of World War I, although he would later be released early by President Warren G. Harding. Countless others, labeled as "subverts" (especially the Wobblies), were investigated by the Woodrow Wilson Administration.

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. Abraham Lincoln invoked this power in the American Civil War to imprison Maryland secessionists. In that case, the Supreme Court concluded that only Congress could suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and the government released the detainees. During World War II, the United States interned thousands of Japanese-Americans on alleged fears that Japan might use them as saboteurs.

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 Federal Bureau of Investigation established COINTELPRO to infiltrate and disrupt left-wing organizations, including those that supported the rights of black Americans.

National security, as well as other concerns like unemployment, has sometimes led the United States 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.

Labor Rights

Labor rights in the United States have been linked to basic constitutional rights and strict laws mandate safe working environments, prohibit child labor, and guarantee a livable minimum wage. While U.S. workers tend to work longer hours than other industrialized nations, lower taxes and more benefits give them a larger disposable income than those of most industrialized nations, and U.S. workers are among the most productive in the world.

During the Industrial Revolution and into the 19th century, labor conditions in the United States were loosely controlled described as being "the bloodiest" of any industrialized nation. During the 19th and 20th centuries, safer conditions and workers' rights were gradually mandated by law. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act recognized and protected "the rights of most workers in the private sector to organize labor unions, to engage in collective bargaining, and to take part in strikes and other forms of concerted activity in support of their demands."

Inhumane treatment

Death penalty

Capital punishment is controversial. Death penalty opponents regard the death penalty as inhumane and criticize it for its irreversibility and assert that it lacks a deterrent effect. , as have several studies and debunking studies which claim to show a deterrent effect According to Amnesty International, "the death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights."

The 1972 US Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia held that arbitrary imposition of the death penalty at the states' discretion constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In California v. Anderson 64 Cal.2d 633, 414 P.2d 366 (Cal. 1972), the Supreme Court of California classified capital punishment as cruel and unusual and outlawed the use of capital punishment in California, until it was reinstated in 1976 after the federal supreme court rulings Gregg v. Georgia, , Jurek v. Texas, , and Proffitt v. Florida, . As of January 25, 2008, the death penalty has been abolished in District of Columbia and fourteen states, mainly in the Northeast and Midwest.

The UN special rapporteur recommended to a committee of the UN General Assembly that the United States be found to be in violation of Article 6 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in regards to the death penalty in 1998, and called for an immediate capital punishment moratorium. The recommendation of the special rapporteur is not legally binding under international law, and in this case the UN did not act upon the lawyers recommendation.

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 there have been 1077 executions in the United States (as of May 23, 2007). There were 53 executions in 2006. Texas overwhelmingly leads the United States in executions, with 379 executions from 1976 to 2006; the second-highest ranking state is Virginia, with 98 executions.

A ruling on March 1, 2005 by the United States Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons prohibits the execution of people who committed their crimes when they were under the age of 18. Between 1990 and 2005, Amnesty International recorded 19 executions in the United States for crime committed by a juvenile.

It is the official policy of the European Union and a number of non-EU nations to achieve global abolition of the death penalty. For this reason the EU is vocal in its criticism of the death penalty in the US and has submitted amicus curiae briefs in a number of important US court cases related to capital punishment. The American Bar Association also sponsors a project aimed at abolishing the death penalty in the United States, stating as among the reasons for their opposition that the US continues to execute minors and the mentally retarded, and fails to protect adequately the rights of the innocent.

Some opponents criticize the overrepresentation of blacks on death row as evidence of the unequal racial application of the death penalty. This over-representation is not limited to capital offenses, in 1992 although blacks account for 12% of the US population, about 34 percent of prison inmates were from this group. In McCleskey v. Kemp, it was alleged the capital sentencing process was administered in a racially discriminatory manner in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In 2003, Amnesty International reported those who kill whites are more likely to be executed than those who kill blacks, citing of the 845 people executed since 1977, 80 percent were put to death for killing whites and 13 percent were executed for killing blacks, even though blacks and whites are murdered in almost equal numbers.

Prison system

The United States is seen by social critics, including international and domestic human rights groups and civil rights organizations, as a state that violates fundamental human rights, because of disproportionately heavy, in comparison with other countries, reliance on crime control, individual behavior control (civil liberties), and societal control of disadvantaged groups through a harsh police and criminal justice system. The U.S. penal system is implemented on the federal, and in particular on the state and local levels. This social policy has resulted in an extraordinary and unique in the world rate of incarceration, which hits Americans from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds and racial minorities the hardest.

Some have criticized the United States for having an extremely large prison population, where there have been reported abuses. As of 2004 the United States had the highest percentage of people in prison of any nation. There were more than 2.2 million in prisons or jails, or 737 per 100,000 population, or roughly 1 out of every 136 Americans. "Human Rights Watch believes the extraordinary rate of incarceration in the United States wreaks havoc on individuals, families and communities, and saps the strength of the nation as a whole."

Examples of mistreatment claimed include prisoners left naked and exposed in harsh weather or cold air; "routine" use of rubber bullets and pepper spray; forced immersion in scalding water causing second and third degree burns (one documented case); solitary confinement of violent prisoners in soundproofed cells for 23 or 24 hours a day; and a range of injuries from serious injury to fatal gunshot wounds, with force at one California prison "often vastly disproportionate to the actual need or risk that prison staff faced." Such behaviors are illegal, and "professional standards clearly limit staff use of force to that which is necessary to control prisoner disorder."

Human Rights Watch raised concerns with prisoner rape and medical care for inmates. In a survey of 1,788 male inmates in Midwestern prisons by Prison Journal, about 21% claimed they had been coerced or pressured into sexual activity during their incarceration and 7% claimed that they had been raped in their current facility. Tolerance of serious sexual abuse and rape in United States prisons are consistently reported as widespread. It has been fought against by organizations such as Stop Prisoner Rape.

The United States has been criticized for having a high amount of non-violent and victim-less offenders incarcerated, as half of all persons incarcerated under State jurisdiction are for non-violent offences and 20 percent are incarcerated for drug offences, mostly for possession of cannabis.

The United States is the only country in the world allowing sentencing of young adolescents to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. There are currently 73 Americans serving such sentences for crimes they committed at the age of 13 or 14. In December 2006 the United Nations took up a resolution calling for the abolition of this kind of punishment for children and young teenagers. 185 countries voted for the resolution and only the United States against.

Police brutality

In a 1999 report, Amnesty International said it had "documented patterns of ill-treatment across the U.S., including police beatings, unjustified shootings and the use of dangerous restraint techniques. According to a 1998 Human Rights Watch report, incidents of police use of excessive force had occurred in cities throughout the U.S., and this behavior goes largely unchecked. An article in USA Today reports that in 2006, 96% of cases referred to the U.S. Justice Department for prosecution by investigative agencies were declined. In 2005, 98% were declined. In 2001, the New York Times reported that the U.S. government is unable or unwilling to collect statistics showing the precise number of people killed by the police or the prevalence of the use of excessive force. Since 1999, at least 148 people have died in the United States and Canada after being shocked with Tasers by police officers, according to a 2005 ACLU report. In one case, a handcuffed suspect was Tasered nine times by a police officer before dying, and six of those Taserings occurred within less than three minutes.

Health care

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care.” In addition, the Principles of Medical Ethics of the American Medical Association require medical doctors to respect the human rights of the patient, including that of providing medical treatment when it is needed. Influential figures, such as Pope John Paul II, have stated denying access to afforable health care is a violation of the right to life. Americans' rights in health care are regulated by the US Patients' Bill of Rights.

Unlike most other industrialized nations, the United States does not offer most of its citizens subsidized health care. The United States Medicaid program provides subsidized coverage to some categories of individuals and families with low incomes and resources, including children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities. However, "the Medicaid program does not provide health care services, even for very poor persons, unless they are in one of the designated eligibility groups. Nonetheless, some states offer subsidized health insurance to broader populations. Coverage is subsidized for persons age 65 and over, or who meet other special criteria through Medicare, and the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act of 1986 mandates that no person may ever be denied emergency services regardless of ability to pay, citizenship, or immigration status.

Nevertheless, according to a March 2007 poll by CBS News and the New York Times, 81 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the cost of health care. 46.6 million Americans, or 15.9 percent, were without health insurance coverage in 2005. Moreover, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act has been criticized by the American College of Emergency Physicians as an unfunded mandate.

Universal health care debate

The level of government involvement in providing, ensuring, and enforcing the right to adequate health care is a topic of longstanding political debate. Indeed, as Peter Lawson indicates in his chapter of the Case Western University textbook Public Health Management & Policy,

Various experts and pundits have weighed in on the debate surrounding calls for a national health care system precisely because this issue forces one to consider some of the most intrinsically difficult questions within the political and economic philosophy of the United States: the role of the state in private life, the appropriate position of the government vis a vis the market, and rights of individuals within a capitalist marketplace.

Historically, several Democratic Presidents (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton) and legislators have attempted to institute universal coverage, as well as Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Health care itself is a human right, as defined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. There is vigorous debate if universal health care would improve or would reduce the quality of health care. If improved, this would enhance the right to health care. If degraded, then universal health care would correspondingly degrade this right.

The Center for Economic and Social Rights, an international human rights advocacy group, calls for health care reforms in the US to reflect the "right to health," and that the current US health care system "falls short of international standards for the right to health." The center argues that, in order to uphold the right to health care in the United States, "Health care must be universally available and accessible," and that it should be "affordable to all, irrespective of race, gender, religion, geography, and income." Alicia Ely Yamin, a human rights attorney at the Harvard School of Public Health, has advocated universal health care in the American Journal of Public Health, also citing the pragmatic reason that the US government is failing, she claims, to enforce and uphold nominally extant health care rights. She cites the disparities in quality of health care depending on factors such as race, nationality, and income in calling for the federal government to step in and enforce a more equitable system.

The United States spends more on health care than does any other nation as a percentage of GDP. One textbook suggests that because costs are so high and are increasing; that the real problem is that the system is too good, and not everyone can afford increasingly expensive medical care, and so the real challenge might be to find any method that can afford the increasing medical expenditures. However, the World Health Organization in 2000 ranked the U.S. health care system 37th in overall performance and 72nd by overall level of health (among 191 member nations included in the study). Similarly, a study by The Commonwealth Fund showed that, despite the comparatively large expenditure of public money on health care, the United States health system consistently underperforms in most performance indicators. Similar results have been attested by Arnold S. Relman, who has argued that among the reasons for the lower returns on public health money in the US is that the current system of private insurers is less efficient than a single state-administered insurance system such as Medicaide.

Other voices have also weighed in on the other side of the debate. For instance, Michael J. Hurd argues in The Washington Times:

Health care is not a right -- no matter how often you hear otherwise. Health care is the consequence of heroic efforts on the part of individual doctors, who have every right to charge what the market permits. If we take away the right of medical professionals to set their own fees, we will undermine their independence and chase the best ones into early retirement.

In 1994, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton attempted to implement a universal-care plan without a single-payer system. According to Hillary Clinton biographer Joyce Milton, this plan called for moving most Americans to HMOs and "strictly ration access to high-tech treatments, especially for the very ill and the elderly", cutting 124 billion from Medicare and, Milton argues, would have restricted access to pharmaceuticals that were too expensive. Congress defeated the measure, and the Democrats were defeated in the 1994 midterm election which Newsweek described as a referendum on the big-government associated with the Clinton plan.

Hurricane Katrina

See main article Criticism of government response to Hurricane Katrina In 2005 the Gulf Coast of the United States was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The city of New Orleans, which was built below sea level, and which includes many inhabitants who could not afford cars with which to evacuate the city during the storm, was particularly badly hit. The government response to the disaster was perceived as being very slow; thousands of people were stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center for four days without food and water. Furthermore, the government was accused of overreacting to the looting which followed the storm; soldiers facing looters (many of whom were merely looking for food and water) were ordered to "shoot to kill." Some allege that these problems reflected racial prejudice; most of those trapped in New Orleans were African-American.

International human rights

Support for human rights

The U.S. Department of State publishes a yearly report "Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record" in compliance with a 2002 law which requires the Department to report on actions taken by the U.S. Government to encourage respect for human rights. It also publishes a yearly "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.". In 2006 the United States created a "Human Rights Defenders Fund" and "Freedom Awards. The "Ambassadorial Roundtable Series", created in 2006, are informal discussions between newly-confirmed U.S. Ambassadors and human rights and democracy non-governmental organizations. The United States also support democracy and human rights through several other tools.

The "Human Rights and Democracy Achievement Award" recognizes the exceptional achievement of officers of foreign affairs agencies posted abroad.

  • In 2006 the award went to Joshua Morris of the embassy in Mauritania who recognized necessary democracy and human rights improvements in Mauritania and made democracy promotion one of his primary responsibilities. He persuaded the Government of Mauritania to re-open voter registration lists to an additional 85,000 citizens, which includes a significant number of Afro-Mauritanian minority individuals. He also organized and managed the largest youth-focused democracy project in Mauritania in 5 years.
  • Nathaniel Jensen of the embassy in Vietnam was runner-up. He successfully advanced the human rights agenda on several fronts, including organizing the resumption of a bilateral Human Rights Dialogue, pushing for the release of Vietnam’s prisoners of concern, and dedicating himself to improving religion freedom in northern Vietnam.

Human rights treaties ratified

The U.S. has signed and ratified the following human rights treaties:

Non-binding treaties voted for:

Human rights treaties not signed or signed but not ratified

Where the signature is subject to ratification, acceptance or approval, the signature does not establish the consent to be bound. However, it is a means of authentication and expresses the willingness of the signatory state to continue the treaty-making process. The signature qualifies the signatory state to proceed to ratification, acceptance or approval. It also creates an obligation to refrain, in good faith, from acts that would defeat the object and the purpose of the treaty.

As well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court the U.S. has not ratified the following international human rights treaties:

The US has signed but not ratified the following treaties:

Non-binding treaties voted against:

The U.S. and the International Bill of Rights

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are the legal treaties that enshrine the rights which are outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Together they constitute the International Bill of Rights The US has not ratified the ICESCR. It has been opposed by groups seeing it as obligating the introduction of in the US controversial policies such as universal health care. The US's ratification of the ICCPR was done with five reservations – or limits – on the treaty. Among these is the rejection of sections of the treaty which prohibit capital punishment.

The U.S. and the International Criminal Court

For more information see United States and the International Criminal Court.

The U.S. has not ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was drafted for prosecuting individuals above the authority of national courts in the event of accusations of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crime of aggression. Nations that have accepted the Rome Statute can defer to the jurisdiction of the ICC or must surrender their jurisdiction when ordered.

The US rejected the Rome Statute after its attempts to include the nation of origin as a party in international proceedings failed, and after certain requests were not met, including recognition of gender issues, "rigorous" qualifications for judges, viable definitions of crimes, protection of national security information that might be sought by the court, and jurisdiction of the UN Security Council to halt court proceedings in special cases. Since the passage of the statute, the US has actively encouraged nations around the world to sign "bilateral immunity agreements" prohibiting the surrender of US personnel before the ICC. The US Congress also passed a law, American Service-Members' Protection Act (ASPA), known by critics as "The Hague Invasion Act," authorizing the use of military force to free any US personnel that are brought before the court rather than its own court system.

After US President George W. Bush removed the US signature from the Statute, Kenneth Roth, Director of the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch said that this action had put the US "on the wrong side of history" and that:

Unsigning the treaty will throw the United States into opposition against the most important new institution for enforcing human rights in 50 years.

Judge Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor at The Hague war crimes tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, echoed these sentiments saying:

I think it is a very backwards step. It is unprecedented which I think to an extent smacks of pettiness in the sense that it is not going to affect in any way the establishment of the international criminal court...The US have really isolated themselves and are putting themselves into bed with the likes of China, the Yemen and other undemocratic countries.

While the US has maintained that it will "bring to justice those who commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes," its primary objections to the Rome Statute have revolved around the issues of jurisdiction and process. A US ambassador for War Crimes Issues to the UN Security Council said to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that because the Rome Statute requires only one nation to submit to the ICC, and that this nation can be the country in which an alleged crime was committed rather than defendant’s country of origin, U.S military personnel and US foreign peaceworkers in more than 100 countries could be tried in international court without the consent of the US. The ambassador states that "most atrocities are committed internally and most internal conflicts are between warring parties of the same nationality, the worst offenders of international humanitarian law can choose never to join the treaty and be fully insulated from its reach absent a Security Council referral. Yet multinational peacekeeping forces operating in a country that has joined the treaty can be exposed to the court's jurisdiction even if the country of the individual peacekeeper has not joined the treaty."

The U.S. and the Inter-American human rights system

The US is a signatory to the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and has signed but not ratified the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights. It does not accept the adjudicatory jurisdiction of the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The US has not ratified any of the other regional human rights treaties of the Organization of American States, which include:

Coverage of international human rights violations in the media

Studies have found that the New York Times coverage of worldwide human rights violations is biased, predominantly focusing on the human rights violations in nations where there is clear U.S. involvement, while having relatively little coverage of the human rights violations in other nations. Amnesty International's Secretary General Irene Khan explains, "If we focus on the U.S. it's because we believe that the U.S. is a country whose enormous influence and power has to be used constructively ... When countries like the U.S. are seen to undermine or ignore human rights, it sends a very powerful message to others."

Alleged violations of national sovereignty

The Iran-Contra Affair was a highly publicized political scandal, in which the United States helped illegally sell arms to Iran to finance the rebel Contras guerrillas, a group implicated in serious human rights violations, in their war against the Nicaraguan government. The case of Nicaragua v. United States was heard by the International Court of Justice and the court found that the US had violated international law by supporting guerrillas and by direct action of U.S. personnel, such as laying mines in Nicaragua's harbors and sabotage. The support for the Contras violated the obligation not to intervene in the affairs of another State. The U.S. had also encouraged human rights violations by disseminating the manual "Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare", but had too little control over the Contras for such violations to be imputable to the U.S. The United States disagreed that the court had jurisdiction or power over its actions and was not bound by its ruling. The CIA claimed that the purpose of the manual was to "moderate" activities already being done by the Contras. The UN Security Council had the authority to enforce this court decision that the court lacked, and it elected not to do so.

Treatment of captured non-citizens

International and U.S. law prohibits torture and other ill-treatment of any person in custody in all circumstances. However, the United States Government has categorized a large number of people as unlawful combatants, a United States classification, which denies the privileges of prisoner of war (POW) designation of the Geneva Conventions. Once a combatant is found by a competent tribunal to be an unlawful combatant, he or she no longer has the rights and privileges accorded to POW.

Certain practices of the United States military and Central Intelligence Agency have been condemned domestically and internationally as torture. A fierce debate regarding non-standard interrogation techniques exists within the US civilian and military intelligence community, with no general consensus as to what practices under what conditions are acceptable.

Abuse of prisoners is considered a crime in the United States Uniform Code of Military Justice. According to a January 2006 Human Rights First report, there were 45 suspected or confirmed homicides while in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan; "Certainly 8, as many as 12, people were tortured to death.

In 2004, photos showing humiliation and abuse of prisoners leaked from Abu Ghraib prison, causing a political and media scandal in the US. Forced humiliation of the detainees included, but is not limited to nudity, rape, human piling of nude detainees, masturbation, eating food out of toilets, crawling on hand and knees while American soldiers were sitting on their back sometimes requiring them to bark like dogs, and hooking up electrical wires to fingers, toes, and penis. In addition to the acts of humiliation, there were more violent claims, such as American soldiers sodomizing detainees (including an event involving an underage boy), an incident where a phosphoric light was broken and the chemicals poured on a detainee, repeated beatings, and threats of death. Six military personnel were charged with prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse. The harshest sentence was handed out to Charles Graner, who received a 10 year sentence to be served in a military prison; the other offenders received lesser sentences.

Guantánamo Bay

The United States maintains a detention center at its military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba and its executive branch controversially asserts that prisoners held there are not subject to constitutional protections. Prisoners there generally do not receive trials and detention is indefinite. The US argues that even if detainees were entitled to POW status, they would not have the right to lawyers, access to the courts to challenge their detention, or the opportunity to be released prior to the end of hostilities and that nothing in the Third Geneva Convention provides POWs such rights, and POWs in past wars have generally not been given these rights. However, no-one has ever previously declared war on an abstract concept (terror), and it is questionable whether the Geneva Conventions apply in this case. The legal and political status of this policy is evolving.

A delegation of UN Special Rapporteurs to Guantanamo Bay reported that interrogation techniques used in the detention center amount to degrading treatment in violation of the ICCPR and the Convention Against Torture.

In 2005 Amnesty International expressed alarm at the erosion in civil liberties since the 9/11 attacks. According to Amnesty International:

The Guantánamo Bay detention camp has become a symbol of the United States administration’s refusal to put human rights and the rule of law at the heart of its response to the atrocities of 11 September 2001. It has become synonymous with the United States executive’s pursuit of unfettered power, and has become firmly associated with the systematic denial of human dignity and resort to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that has marked the USA’s detentions and interrogations in the "war on terror".

Amnesty International also condemned the Guantánamo facility as "the gulag of our times", which raised heated conversation in the United States. The purported legal status of "unlawful combatants" in those nations currently holding detainees under that name has been the subject of criticism by other nations and international human rights institutions including Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC, in response to the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan, published a paper on the subject The legal situation of unlawful/unprivileged combatants (IRRC March 2003 Vol.85 No 849) See Unlawful combatant. HRW cites two sergeants and a captain accusing U.S. troops of torturing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Extraordinary rendition

United States citizens and foreign nationals are occasionally captured (and at times claimed to be abducted) outside of the United States and transferred to secret US administered detention facilities, sometimes being held incommunicado for periods of months or years, a process known as extraordinary rendition.

According to The New Yorker, "The most common destinations for rendered suspects are Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Jordan, all of which have been cited for human-rights violations by the State Department, and are known to torture suspects."

Notable cases

In November 2001, Yaser Esam Hamdi, a U.S. citizen, was captured by Afghan Northern Alliance forces in Konduz, Afghanistan, amongst hundreds of surrendering Taliban fighters and was transferred into U.S. custody. The U.S. government alleged that Hamdi was there fighting for the Taliban, while Hamdi, through his father, has claimed that he was merely there as a relief worker and was mistakenly captured. Hamdi was transferred into CIA custody and transferred to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, but when it was discovered that he was a U.S. citizen, he was transferred to naval brig in Norfolk, Virginia and then he was transferred brig in Charleston, South Carolina. The Bush Administration identified him as an unlawful combatant and denied him access to an attorney or the court system, despite his Fifth Amendment right to due process. In 2002 Hamdi's father filed a habeas corpus petition, the Judge ruled in Hamdi's favor and required he be allowed a public defender; however, on appeal the decision was reversed. In 2004, in the case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld the U.S. Supreme court reversed the dismissal of a habeas corpus petition and ruled detainees who are U.S. citizens must have the ability to challenge their detention before an impartial judge.

In December 2004, Khalid El-Masri, a German citizen, was apprehended by Macedonian authorities when traveling to Skopje because his name was similar to Khalid al-Masri, an alleged metor to the al-Qaeda Hamburg cell. After being held in a motel in Macedonia for over three weeks he was transferred to the CIA and extradited to Afghanistan. While held in Afghanistan, El-Masri claims he was sodomized, beaten, and repeatedly interrorgated about alleged terrorist ties. After being in custody for five months, Condoleezza Rice learned of his detention and ordered his release. El-Masri was released at night on a desolate road in Albania, without apology, or funds to return home. He was intercepted by Albanian guards, who believed him to be a terrorist due to his haggard and unkept appearance. He was subsequently reunited with his wife who had returned to her family in Lebanon, with their children, because she thought her husband had abandoned them. Using isotope analysis, scientists at the Bavarian archive for geology in Munich analyzed his hair and verified that he was malnourished during his disappearance.

United Nations Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council has no authority or jurisdiction except to make recommendations to the United Nations General Assembly, which has no authority or jurisdiction under the UN Charter to take any acton except to advise policies to the Security Council.

The United States has refused to seek a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) since 2006 and on March 5, 2007, the U.S. State Department asserted the UNHRC had lost its credibility since "here has been a nearly singular focus on issues related to Israel, for example, to the exclusion of examining issues of real concern to the international system, whether that's in Cuba or Burma or in North Korea. The United States has also criticized the lack of safeguards against severe human rights violators taking a seat.

On May 18, 2006, The United Nations Human Rights Council released a report, which urged the United States to adopt their recommendations. The recommendations included: holding senior official who acquiesced, authorized, or consented to acts of torture committed by their subordinates; closing all secret prisons; closing Guantanamo Bay detention camp; registering detainees captured in the War on Terrorism; and ending extraordinary rendition. The report rejected the United States' claim the United Nations Convention Against Torture does not apply to U.S. personnel acting outside the U.S. or acting during wartime and stated "[The United States] has the obligation to implement the Convention against Torture in full at the domestic level." The report further criticized how the United States allows executions by lethal injection, houses children in adult jails, and subjects prisoners to prolonged isolation in supermax prisons.

In May 2007, Martin Scheinin, a United Nations rapporteur on rights in countering terrorism, released a preliminary report for the United Nations Human Rights Council. The report stated the United States violated international law, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, by the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and criticized the classification of unlawful combatants and the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act; however, the report stated "[The United States] is a country which still has a great deal to be proud of.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights offered an opinion that the persisting racial poverty gaps in the U.S. amount to human rights violations.

The United Nations Human Rights Council lacks any legal authority except to make recommendations to the UN Security Council. The Security Council has received all of the recommendations detailed and has not found any violations of any human rights or international laws. It must be noted that the United States has been, since the inception of the UN, a permanent member of the Security Council with full veto rights.

The United States is the only country in the world allowing sentencing of young adolescents to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. There are currently 73 Americans serving such sentences for crimes they committed at the age of 13 or 14. In December 2006 the United Nations General Assembly took up a non-binding resolution calling for the abolition of this kind of punishment for children and young teenagers. 185 countries voted for the resolution and only the United States against.

Further Assessments

According to Freedom in the World, an annual report by Freedom House, which rates political rights and civil liberties, in 2007, the United States was ranked "Free" (the highest possible rating), together with 92 other countries.

The Polity data series, which rate regime and authority characteristics, covering the years 1800-2004, has ranked the United States with the highest possible rating since 1871.

According to the Democracy Index, the US ranks 17 out of 167 nations.

According to the annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, due to wartime restrictions the United States was ranked 53rd from the top in 2006 (out of 168), 44th in 2005. 22nd in 2004, 31st in 2003 and 17th in 2002,

According to the annual Corruption Perceptions Index, which was published by Transparency International, the United States was ranked 20th from the top in 2006 (out of 163), 17th in 2005, 18th in 2003, and 16th in 2002.

See also


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