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American Civil Liberties Union
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
AFRICA WATCH <> AMERICAS WATCH
ASIA WATCH <> HELSINKI WATCH
MIDDLE EAST WATCH
ACLU AND HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH REPORT ON U.S. VIOLATIONS OF
INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COVENANT
Groups Call on Clinton Administration to Correct Abuses, Ensure
That International Standards Can Be Invoked in U.S. Courts
December 14, 1993
The United States falls short of compliance with the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights according to a report released
today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch.
"The United States government regularly condemns human rights abuses in
other countries, but has done little to apply international human rights
law in the United States," stated Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of
Human Rights Watch. "We issue this report in the hope of breaking the
cynical view of international human rights law as a source of protection
only for those outside U.S. borders. This report demonstrates that
violations are happening on U.S. soil, as well."
The 128-page report, a joint undertaking of the major U.S. constitutional
rights organization and largest U.S.-based international human rights
group, was prompted by the ratification of the ICCPR by the U.S. in 1992,
more than 25 years after its adoption by the United Nations. The ICCPR
requires each signatory to ensure the rights codified for "all individuals
within its territory." As part of its obligation under the ICCPR, the
U.S. will for the first time submit a report about its own human rights
record to a United Nations committee that will evaluate U.S. compliance
with international standards.
The U.S. report was due in September, and is expected to be released in
the next few weeks. It is being prepared by the Department of State. In a
letter accompanying the submission of the report to Secretary of State
Warren Christopher, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch urged him to use the
"opportunity for a full and frank assessment of U.S. human rights
In their report, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch examine U.S. practices in
the areas of race and sex discrimination, prisoners' rights, police
brutality, the death penalty, immigration rights, language rights,
religious liberty, and freedom of expression.
The report finds significant shortcomings in the U.S. record, from the
summary repatriation of Haitian boat people to the brutal treatment of
prisoners. In these and other cases, the ICCPR may offer greater
protection against human rights abuses than the current interpretation of
U.S. law. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch call on the Clinton
Administration to take steps to correct these abuses and to make it
possible to invoke the protections of the Covenant in U.S. courts. The
Bush administration, through a series of reservations, declarations and
understandings, nullified every provision of the treaty that it believed
would have granted expanded rights to Americans. Asserting that the U.S.
was in compliance with the remainder of the Covenant's guarantees, the
Administration then denied Americans the opportunity to rely on the
Covenant in U.S. courts.
According to Paul Hoffman, Legal Director of the ACLU of Southern
California and one of the report's authors: "This report shows that the
Bush administration was wrong -- the United States is not complying with
the treaty's obligations. The Clinton Administration must take immediate
steps to remedy these human rights violations, and to allow Americans to
use the treaty to protect their rights. We also urge the repeal of a
number of the restrictions imposed on covenant rights."
The report is not intended as a comprehensive examination of the human
rights situation in the United States or of U.S. compliance with the
ICCPR. Human Rights Watch and the ACLU have identified nine substantive
areas in which the United States human rights record falls short of
international standards. Among the major findings of the report are these:
o Prison Conditions. The United States routinely violates Article 10 of
the ICCPR, which requires that all prisoners and detainees "be treated
with humanity and with respect to the inherent dignity of the human
person." The U.S. violates this provision by placing prisoners into
extremely overcrowded facilities that strip them of their dignity and
privacy and endanger their health and safety. Article 10 is also violated
by many of the techniques and punishments of "super maximum security"
facilities, where, for example, prisoners may pass years without breathing
the outside air or may be forced to eat their meals with their hands tied
behind their backs. The anti-discrimination requirement of Article 26 is
violated by the unequal treatment of women prisoners, who receive fewer
recreational, vocational, and educational opportunities than their male
o Immigrants and Refugees. The interdiction and summary repatriation of
Haitian boat people is a flagrant violation of Article 12, which states
that "[e]veryone shall be free to leave any country, including his own."
It also violates Article 26, which forbids discrimination on the basis of
national origin (intercepted Cubans, for example, are not summarily
repatriated). Human rights abuses by Border Patrol agents of the
Immigration and Naturalization Service violate Article 7 (the right to be
free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment) and Article
9(1) (the right to liberty and security of the person).
o Race Discrimination. Although U.S. legal protection against race
discrimination is generally adequate by ICCPR standards, in practice legal
safeguards go largely unmet. Educational segregation and unequal
conditions of schooling persist at all levels; public and private housing
are rife with segregation and discrimination; and in employment, African
Americans are three times less likely to be hired than whites with similar
qualifications. By failing adequately to redress ongoing racial and ethnic
discrimination, the United States stands in violation of Article 2, which
requires an effective remedy for violation of Covenant rights, and Article
26, which requires "equal and effective protection [i.e., enforcement of
the remedy] against discrimination on any ground."
o Language Rights. Minority language speakers in the U.S. face
discrimination in health and social services, employment and education, as
well as overt hostility as manifested by the "English-only" movement that
emerged in the 1980s. Article 26 forbids discrimination based on language.
In the U.S., by contrast, constitutional claims alleging such
discrimination have received a relatively low level of judicial scrutiny.
This low level of scrutiny is protected by the Bush Administration's
"understanding" entered regarding Article 26, which purports to allow
discrimination when it is "rationally related to a legitimate governmental
objective." Erasure of this understanding and implementation of the ICCPR
would provide much-needed protection to language minorities.
o Sex Discrimination. Women in the U.S. face systemic and entrenched
discrimination in the workplace in terms of occupational access,
conditions of employment, and compensation. They are discriminated against
through omission in government-funded medical research. In public schools
and universities, girls and women continue to receive less attention and
resources than do boys and men, despite Title IX's mandate for equal
education. Article 26 not only forbids discrimination; it also requires
States parties to provide "equal and effective protection" against
discrimination. Even taking into account the limiting understanding
imposed by the U.S. on Article 26, its failure adequately to protect
against sex discrimination violates that provision.
o Religious Liberty. A 1990 Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v.
Smith, began a serious incursion by U.S. courts into First Amendment
protection for the free exercise of religion. Fortunately, this incursion
was halted by the recent passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The experience of the three intervening years, when protection for
religious freedom dwindled in the U.S., underscore the potential
importance of the ICCPR as an additional line of defense to this and other
o Freedom of Expression. Although by most measures the U.S. is a leader in
the area of free expression, it falls short of meeting Article 19 of the
ICCPR, which guarantees a right "to seek, receive and impart information .
. . regardless of frontiers." The U.S. violates this right by curtailing
the flow of information both into and out of the country: visas are denied
to some controversial speakers; informational materials from certain
countries are excluded by economic embargo laws; and Americans are
restricted in their ability to travel abroad and seek and impart
information independently. The U.S. also violated Article 19 by imposing
severe and unjustified restrictions on the media during the Gulf War.
o The Death Penalty. Article 6 of the ICCPR favors but does not require
the abolition of the death penalty. It also limits the circumstances in
which the death penalty may be imposed: arbitrary deprivation of life is
forbidden, as is the execution of juveniles; furthermore, the death
penalty may be imposed "only for the most serious crimes." The U.S.
entered a reservation to the ICCPR that allows it to use capital
punishment to the extent permitted under the U.S. Constitution. But for
this reservation, the United States would be in violation of all of the
above conditions of Article 6.
o Police Brutality. The 1991 beating of Rodney King spotlights police
abuse in the United States is one of the most pressing human rights issues
facing the U.S. The persistent use of excessive force, often exacerbated
by racism, violates the Article 7 prohibition on "cruel, inhuman and
degrading treatment or punishment" and the prohibition in Articles 2 and
26 against discrimination. The United States further violates Article 2 by
failing to take "the necessary steps" to ensure respect for these basic
Human Rights Watch was established in 1978 to monitor and promote
international human rights around the world. It is composed of Africa
Watch, Americas Watch, Asia Watch, Helsinki Watch and Middle East Watch.
Human Rights Watch also includes the Women's Rights Project, the Prison
Project, the Arms Project and the Fund for Free Expression. The Chair of
Human Rights Watch is Robert L. Bernstein and the Vice Chair is Adrian
DeWind. Kenneth Roth is Executive Director, Holly Burkhalter is Washington
Director, Gara LaMarche is Associate Director, Ellen Lutz is California
Director and Susan Osnos is Press Director.
The ACLU is a nationwide, nonpartisan organization of nearly 300,000
members dedicated to preserving and defending the principles set forth in
the Bill of Rights. The President of the ACLU is Nadine Strossen, the
Executive Director is Ira Glasser, the Legal Director is Steven R. Shapiro
and the Washington Office Director is Laura Murphy Lee. Paul Hoffman is
the Legal Director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and the
Chair of the ACLU's International Human Rights Task Force.
How to Order the Joint Report on Human Rights Violations in the United
The ACLU and Human Rights Watch collaborated on this landmark report,
which, for the first time, evaluates U.S. compliance with the human rights
standards set forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (ICPSR). Citing major shortcomings in that compliance, the report
calls on the Clinton Administration to take steps toward correcting a wide
range of abuses and to make it possible to invoke ICPSR protections in
U.S. court cases.
Human Rights Violations In The United States. Human Rights Watch/American
Civil Liberties Union. 178 pages. $15.00 plus $3.00 shipping & handling.
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