Human Rights in the Land of the Free

In the discussion of intervention in Syria, much US political rhetoric on the support of human rights has been used. America publically campaigns for holding governments accountable for human rights violations, in fact that is the first point made on the State Department’s human rights goals. However the human rights landscape in the United States of America is far from static and uncontested. America today faces grave charges of human rights violations both from critics within the country and from the international community.

It has been over 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, yet human rights violations continue to cause controversy on a global scale. It has been over 50 years since The Great March on Washington, which is credited with spurring legislation to end racial discrimination in the United States of America, yet racial discrimination is still a major source of controversy there though views on prevalence vary.

March2013CivilRights

The second Article of the UDHR states that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. Regardless,  in 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Armstrong that racial profiling (where race is used as a distinguishing feature in identifying a suspect’s tendency to be involved in crime) is constitutional in the absence of data that “similarly situated” defendants of another race were disparately treated despite opposition based on the Fourth Amendment  of the U.S. Constitution which guarantees the right to be safe from search and seizure without a warrant (which is to be issued “upon probable cause”), and the Fourteenth Amendment which requires that all citizens be treated equally under the law.

Racial profiling is condemned by the Government of USA and allegations of such taking place are usually denied but Amnesty International reports that:

“Approximately eighty-seven million Americans are at a high risk of being subjected to future racial profiling during their lifetime”.

Those affected encompassing  “Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Arab Americans, Persian Americans, American Muslims, many immigrants and visitors, and, under certain circumstances, white Americans.”

Racial profiling also seems to have a large degree of popular support, as indicated by polls from organisations and media outlets like USA Today. Furthermore, the potential for racial discrimination among other human rights violations has exploded with the introduction of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001.

The USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act is an Act of Congress that was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001. Opposition to the Act has focused on provision for indefinite detention of immigrants, the permission given law enforcement officers to search homes or business premises without the owner or occupants’ consent or knowledge, and the expanded use of National Security Letters which allegedly:

allows investigators to demand that businesses turn over sensitive financial records, without specifying the investigation’s target or why the files are needed“.

On May 26, 2011, President Barack Obama signed the PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act of 2011, extending some of the most controversial provisions for a further four years past the original expiry date: roving wiretaps, searches of business records and conducting surveillance of so called “lone wolves” (suspected terrorists not linked to larger groups).

Far more notorious than even the expansion of surveillance under the USA PARTIOT Act is the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base detention camp in Cuba, established in January 2002used by the USA to hold potential terror suspects. One issue debated is that of whether those imprisoned as part of the War on Terror are prisoners of war and thus deserving of protection under the rules of war.

The Geneva Convention’s rules for dealing with prisoners of war are only violated if the prisoners are deemed to be soldiers involved in a war. Defenders of the prison may echo Jim Phillips of The Heritage Foundation, who has said that “some of these terrorists who are not recognized as soldiers don’t deserve to be treated as soldiers.”

However, the conditions at Guantanamo Bay are held to violate more than the rules of war; international commentators have condemned it as violating universal human rights. Amnesty International has called the detention camp a scandal and it is widely considered to violate international laws, earning the condemnation of figures as diverse as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the United Nations, the Red Cross and former president of the USA Jimmy Carter.

On 22 January 2009, President Barack Obama signed an order with a view to suspending proceedings at the Guantanamo military commission for a period of 120 days and decommissioning the detention facility later that year.  Nevertheless, on 7 January 2011, Obama signed the 2011 Defense Authorization Bill, placing restrictions on the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to the mainland or to foreign countries, impeding the closure of the facility, which is still open today.

These expansions of surveillance and detention have been kept out of public eye to the extent that the American government could keep it. However, individuals and organisations inside and outside the system have leaked thousands of documents to expose the reality of human rights abuses undertaken by the United States of America and elsewhere.

The largest set of restricted documents ever leaked to the public was largely a result of the actions of Chelsea Manning (born Bradley Manning), then an intelligence analyst with the US Army (she has since received a dishonourable discharge as a result of the leaks).

Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky/U.S. Army

Manning was ultimately charged with 22 offenses, of which she pleaded guilty to 10. The trial on the remaining charges began on June 3, 2013, and on July 30 she was convicted of 17 of the original charges and amended versions of four others, but was acquitted of aiding the enemy (the most serious charge). She will serve her sentence at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.

While her actions have been debated as either heroic exposure of corruption or villainous endangerment of lives, her status as a transgender woman has been a source of further controversy. Journalist Anne Russell has noted that media outlets differ on whether to represent her as Chelsea with feminine pronouns (as she requested) or as Bradley with masculine pronouns. At the time of writing, Manning is held in a male prison, raising questions of whether she has been wrongly-gendered or correctly sexed with regard to her imprisonment.

In June 2013, Edward Snowden was charged under the same Espionage Act, when he released several documents exposing the NSA’s PRISM Surveillance Program along with details of other top-secret United States and British government mass surveillance programs to the press. Like Chelsea Manning, he too has been hailed as both a hero and a traitor.

As the USA has struggled with how human rights apply to human criminals and terrorists on the one hand nonhuman corporations have become recognised as people with legally protected human rights such as the right to own property and the right to free speech, which may absolve human persons from legal liability for actions which have been taken by corporations under their control. A relatively recent phenomenon, it has already attracted much opposition from groups such as Reclaim Democracy and individuals such as Noam Chomsky.

More than sixty years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, the United States of America is still deeply confused and divided on who is a human person and how universal and inalienable that human person’s rights are.

– Ian

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