Essay Issues Related Human Rights

Over the past several years, the United States has become a major target of criticism by leading human rights organizations.  Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued a series of reports which castigate America for its treatment of minority groups, women, prisoners, immigrants and asylum seekers, and criminal defendants.  Amnesty International has gone so far as to enlist its millions of members in a worldwide campaign against human rights abuses in the United States; at the 1999 session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International listed the U.S. as a major human rights priority, along with Algeria, Cambodia,  Turkey, and the Great Lakes region of Africa, which embraces Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What accounts for this upsurge of concern over the American record?  Ordinarily, human rights organizations issue reports in response to clear and verifiable patterns of human rights abuses, such as the imprisonment of democracy advocates in China or the massacre of Christians in India.  Or they may shine the spotlight on a particular country because of a generalized deterioration in a  broad range of human rights, as has been the case in Belarus.  Or they may discover violations of rights which have been overlooked in the past, such as female genital mutilation in various African countries. 

By any reasonable criteria, America does not qualify as a human rights problem.  Like all societies, the United States suffers its share of social ills.  Nevertheless,  its record of protecting the rights of society’s most vulnerable groups ranks with the best in the world.  Layer upon layer of laws, administrative regulations, and court decrees exist to promote the fair treatment of racial minorities, immigrants, the handicapped, women, children, the elderly, the mentally ill, and religious believers (and non-believers as well).  Although homosexuals are not extended the protection of most federal civil rights laws, the states have increasingly included gays and lesbians in the roster of classes protected by anti-discrimination legislation. 

Yet to its critics, the U.S. is not a country where special rights have been adopted for those who might conceivably suffer discrimination, but a cheerless place where the individual is at the mercy of a pitiless market economy and a brutal police regime.   True enough, while in America  all manner of rights are protected, this is also a society where heavy demands are placed on the individual.  Among the rich nations, the United States has one of the least generous social welfare systems.  Unemployment benefits are limited, and there is no national health insurance system for ordinary workers as in many European countries.  Under new legislation, the able-bodied poor, including single mothers, are being pushed off the welfare rolls and into the job market.  Furthermore, America has become highly integrated into the global economy, something which has accelerated the decline of the older industrial base, disrupted the lives of millions of displaced workers, and led to the decline of once-vibrant cities.

It is this second, highly distorted,  image of America—an America where, critics contend, the rich get richer and more powerful at the expense of everyone else—which seems to predominate among the major human rights organizations.  The Amnesty International report speaks of the U.S. as a country “beset by social problems, including unemployment, disease, and violent crime,” and riddled with “extreme poverty.”  That Amnesty International is wrong on every point in its assessment of  America’s socioeconomic condition is beside the point.  If human rights organizations believe that America’s political leaders treat the economic plight of the poor and vulnerable  with extreme indifference, then it is only logical that they would expect America to violate the constitutional and human rights of its citizens as well. 

Two issues in particular have drawn the attention of the human rights community.  The first involves the methods America has chosen to wage its war on crime.  The second is discrimination against non-whites or, to place the matter in a broader and more appropriate context, the country’s efforts to build a successful multinational society. 

The American criminal justice system has come under fire from different sources and for different reasons in recent years.  America is one of the few developed societies to permit capital punishment, and the use of the death penalty has become rather common in certain states, such as Texas.  America has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, and in many states, those convicted of violent crimes or drug-related offenses are being handed lengthy sentences with stipulations that most or all of the sentence must be served.  Much of the increase in the prison population is due to  the war on drugs, a controversial subject even within the law enforcement profession.  Critics claim that sentencing petty drug dealers to years in the penitentiary is unjust and even discriminatory, since a high proportion of drug crime defendants are black.  There is also the question of police abuse.  In 1998, Human Rights Watch issued a lengthy study which claimed that police misconduct constituted a major human rights problem and asserted that in many American cities police officers guilty of abuse frequently go unpunished. 

Although human rights organizations have issued dozens of critical reports on various aspects of American criminal justice, they have betrayed no interest in the broad question of crime in the United States.  This may be because of their position that the context of a human rights violation is immaterial, and the question of how best to wage the war against crime is the responsibility of law enforcement professionals.  This is a purist, and ultimately insufficient, argument.  If we have learned anything over the past thirty years, it is that high levels of crime, or the public perception that crime is out of control, can present  an even greater threat to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights than the abuse of power by the authorities or draconian sentencing policies. 

The impact of violent crime on American democracy was an important theme of Haynes Johnson’s 1994 book, Divided We Fall. After having spent months touring the country and testing the mood of the people, Johnson concluded:

            No subject generates more concern than violent crime, none touches

            people more deeply and personally, none triggers more emotion.

            More than any issue, including jobs and education, the growing

            specter of violence leads people to think that something

            fundamental has been broken in America….

            When people are asked what they think can be done about “it,”

            the answer that invariably comes back is either “I don’t know”

            or “Nothing!”  Crime is believed to be beyond the society’s

            capacity to eliminate. 

Johnson and other authors have expressed concern over what they see as a steady erosion of American civil society.  They point to a weakening of the broad institutions, such as the public schools, which gave Americans the sense of belonging to a single nation.  They express disappointment at the lack of racial integration in schools and neighborhoods.  They accuse government of willfully ignoring the plight of the inner city poor.  They lament the abandonment of urban America by the middle class.

The role of violent crime in each of these problems, and many more, is central.  Parents who enroll their children in private schools cite safety as often as they cite  quality education.  They do not find the presence of metal detectors or security guards reassuring; if the public schools find it necessary to take such extreme steps, they would prefer to move to the suburbs and a safer environment or send their children to non-public schools, despite the expense.  

Security has also played a major role in the rise of “gated communities.”  Critics who regard America as a society in decline often point to the expansion of apartment complexes or residential developments which feature high-tech security devices and private security guards as clear evidence that the rich are walling themselves off from the rest of society.  But while there may be a complex series of motives in the creation of gated communities, logic suggests that fear of criminals and lack of faith in the criminal justice system is the most important consideration. 

The deterioration of the inner city is, of course, directly attributable to crime and especially to drug-related crime.  The failure of schools, businesses, the abandonment of housing, the flight of entrepreneurs and potential community leaders—all reflect the impact of high crime rates in minority neighborhoods over the past three decades. 

And, of course, crime has had a major impact on American politics. Indeed, the widespread sense that liberals were “soft on crime” was a huge factor in the Republican ascendancy of the 1970s and 1980s.  With some justification, liberals became identified with such notions as that the “root causes” of crime were more important than controlling crime, that ensuring the rights of criminal defendants was a higher priority than getting criminals off the streets, and that to call for a war on crime was to appeal to the racial prejudices of the white electorate.  With liberals unwilling to confront the public’s distress over rising crime rates, the way was paved for the rise of demagogues like George Wallace, whose presidential campaign siphoned off many blue-collar Democratic votes, and Frank Rizzo, the tough talking mayor of Philadelphia.

The perception that the state was incapable of dealing with the upsurge of violent crime also eroded the public’s confidence in the core institutions of democracy. Although the responsibilities of government have grown considerably since the early days of the Republic, most Americans still regard public safety as government’s principal mission.  Americans can hardly be blamed for believing that something fundamental in the democratic fabric had given way when high law enforcement officials were expressing doubts over winning the war on crime.  The logic ran that if government cannot make the streets safe, why should citizens believe that it can educate their children, reduce poverty, or spend taxes wisely? 

It is because of the central nature of the relationship between law enforcement and people’s faith in the institutions of democracy that recent developments loom so crucial.  For in fact, there is mounting evidence that through a combination of public policies and new policing techniques, crime has undergone a substantial decrease in practically every major city of the United States.  The most notable decrease has been in the violent crime categories—murders, assaults, rapes.  Americans are still concerned about violent crime, and may continue to express skepticism about government’s ability to bring peace to the streets.  Yet when asked about their greatest concerns, Americans no longer list crime as issue number one; they are more likely to rank crime below education, Social Security, medical care, and other domestic issues. 

There are a number of reasons for the decrease in violent crime that has been recorded in each of the past seven years.  Perhaps the most important is the trend toward lengthy prison sentences, which has ensured that, at any given moment, many potential violent offenders are off the streets and behind bars. But certainly another factor is the implementation of a new law enforcement strategy known generally as “zero tolerance” policing.  Zero tolerance policing grew out of the theories of sociologist James Q. Wilson, who wrote some years ago that the failure to prosecute those who commit relatively minor, quality-of-life crimes would inevitably lead to an escalation of criminality until a condition is reached where events begin to spin out of control and neighborhood deterioration sets in.  

The principal laboratory for the implementation of zero tolerance policing has been New York City during the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.   A former federal prosecutor, Giuliani ran on a tough-on-crime platform, and has instituted a number of initiatives designed to make New York safer and “more livable.”  None has generated more controversy than mass arrests for quality-of life misdemeanors:  drinking or smoking marijuana in public, urinating in the street,  subway fare beating, trespassing, reckless bicycle riding, and the like. 

Zero tolerance is credited with the revival of several New York neighborhoods which had been plagued by an environment notable for drug use, drug sales, public intoxication, and groups of menacing young men—all out in the open with no intervention by the police.  Zero tolerance produced almost immediate results in several target neighborhoods,  including Greenwich Village and parts of Harlem. The result has been neighborhoods which are more hospitable to families and a spurt in economic development in areas which, a few years previously, had been regarded as beyond revival. 

There is, of course, a cost to zero tolerance and other new urban police techniques, which stems from the rather substantial increase in encounters between the police and the public.  In New York, hundreds of arrests are made each night for misdemeanors like public drinking and fare beating.  The accused are taken to the local precinct, booked, and often taken to the central holding area where they may remain overnight, after which they are arraigned before a judge who will ordinarily hand down a small fine, community service, or simply dismiss the case.  Another aspect of zero tolerance is the arrest of petty drug dealers.  Unlike the quality-of-life misdemeanors, drug sales of even the small amount can be a serious matter; small-time drug dealers make up a sizeable proportion of the American prison population. 

Civil libertarians take a dim view of zero tolerance and are actively opposed to the war on drugs, objecting to the jailing of petty dealers and fretting over the preponderance of blacks arrested on drug counts.  Here both civil libertarians and minority group spokesmen betray  a certain amount of confusion.  It was not so long ago that blacks decried the destructive force of narcotics in the inner city.   Especially during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, blacks blamed drugs for destroying black youth, driving the inner city middle class to the suburbs, and robbing minority neighborhoods of economic viability.  True, black leaders were divided on the proper anti-drug strategy.  Some called for a massive police drive against drug use, while others, uncomfortable with an arrest-and-punish approach, talked about ways of dealing with the “root causes” of crime.  The problem with this latter approach is that the root causes—poverty, lack of jobs, and economic development—will resist all efforts at betterment unless crime itself is  brought under control.

Furthermore, the root causes argument has been weakened somewhat by the recent experience of Europe.  Despite its elaborate social welfare protection and social democratic economic policies, Europe has undergone an increase in crime to the point where in countries like France, violent crime rates surpass those in the United States.  Much of the increase in criminality is attributed to unemployed, alienated non-white immigrant youths.  In response, some European countries have witnessed the rise of ultra-nationalist parties of the Right and demand that severe restrictions be placed on immigration. 

The United States has been spared this phenomenon.  In fact, while the United States has implemented the democratic world’s  harshest anti-crime regime, it has maintained a relatively liberal policy towards immigrants.  Despite calls by a special commission on immigration chaired by the late Barbara Jordan for a modest reduction in the number of legal immigrants, America has maintained the same, relatively high immigration level through  periods of both boom and recession. Proposals to change the immigration balance, which now overwhelmingly favors Hispanics and Asians, to encourage a higher proportion of European immigrants, have been rejected, as have proposals to adjust immigration criteria to favor the educated and highly skilled.  

Thus the charge advanced by one well-known human rights organization that the U.S. is undergoing a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment is patently false.  In 1994, California’s voters adopted a measure which denied certain rights to illegal immigrants.  Again, the proposition affected only illegal aliens, and the effect of the measure has been minimized by various court decisions.  Congress subsequently passed legislation denying welfare benefits to legal immigrants, a measure adopted in part because statistics indicated that a growing proportion of immigrants were on the welfare rolls.  There is a good chance that this restriction will be lifted, since both President Clinton and a number of Republicans have spoken in favor of removing a measure which singled out immigrants for special treatment. 

If  America has not become hostile to legal immigrants, it is also true that many  people are concerned over evidence that some of the newer immigrant groups were resisting assimilation into the broader American culture.  Many immigrants seemed to regard American citizenship with indifference, and developed an interest in the naturalization process only after the adoption of restrictions on immigrants access to welfare. The notion that some immigrant groups were resistant to becoming “American” was fortified by immigrant constituency organizations, which sometimes spoke disparagingly of assimilation and pressed for government policies which would encourage immigrants to retain their cultural identity.  Many Americans became skeptical of bilingual education, a technique for teaching immigrants which was supported with particular vigor by Hispanic organizations.  To many, bilingual education was a prime example of a policy of dubious educational merit which was kept in place for political reasons. 

Immigrants bring many benefits to a society like the United States.  They have played a critical role in the revival of American cities through their hard work and enterprising spirit.  Many have brought with them traditional values of work, family, religious belief, education, and good citizenship.  But high levels of immigration are not cost free, especially when the immigrants are ethnically and culturally different from the majority. Furthermore, our current level of mass immigration takes place at a time of  unprecedented expansion in the rights of minorities, with immigrants themselves quick to identify new and special “rights.”  Thus, some have decried the policy of eliminating remedial courses at the City University of New York system as a violation of the rights of immigrants.  Similarly, some see measures to roll back bilingual education as a violation of the right to an equal education, while others decry the roll-back of affirmative action as the denial of the rights of blacks, Hispanics, and even relatively prosperous Asian groups.   

Thus, at the core of the debate over the American condition is a conflict between those who believe that society’s strength lies in an elaborate and constantly expanding series of rights and those who understand that a safe and successful multinational democracy requires hard decisions and trade-offs between individual rights, the protection of minorities, and the requirements of the broader society.  Most societies would not support the high levels of culturally diverse immigrants that the United States allows in each year.  But even in America, the welcome mat would be withdrawn if high percentages of immigrants were on welfare or if immigrants were a major contributor to uncontrolled violent crime.  Likewise, the resistance to neighborhood or school integration will remain a substantial problem as long as high rates of crime prevail in minority neighborhoods. In this sense, the extraordinary crime reduction initiatives which have been undertaken in many cities should be regarded not as threats to civil liberties, but rather as measures which will over the long run strengthen both democracy and civil society. 

While the U.S. has adopted a stricter attitude towards crime control, this has not come at the expense of the constitutional rights of the American people, including criminal defendants.  Most of the procedural safeguards set down by the Supreme Court during the 1960s remain in place.  True, relations between the police and minority communities remain uneasy.  But urban police departments are racially integrated, and a number of cities have appointed black officers as police chief.  Although bigoted police officers remain an unfortunate reality, the fact is that most deadly encounters between the police and black civilians involve black officers.  Most police departments require better educated police officers than in the past, and new recruits are usually given extensive training in crowd control, community relations, and similar sensitive subjects.  Veterans of the criminal justice field overwhelmingly say that police abuse is much less prevalent today than at any time in the past, and police racism is much less a problem than in the pre-civil rights period. 

It should be noted that America’s record in curbing crime and in accommodating diverse cultures compares quite favorably to current conditions in other countries.  In societies like Russia and Mexico, uncontrolled crime ranks as the greatest threat to democracy, political stability, and prosperity.  Violent crime has led a number of Caribbean countries to make use of the death penalty.  In Europe, robberies, assaults, and murders are on the rise in a number of countries, fueling demands to limit or cut off the flow of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East.  European elites often express shock at the rough justice meted out by American courts,  are appalled by America’s use of the death penalty, and continue to regard America as incurably racist 35 years after  the abolition of legal segregation.  Now, however, it is Europe which is confronting the challenge of cultural diversity, and while the proportion of non-European immigrants in France, Germany, and elsewhere does not compare with American figures, Europe is finding the experience a painful one.  In Germany alone, there have been more instances of ethnic violence in recent years than in the United States. 

Finally, no assessment of human rights in the U.S. would be complete without some consideration of the reflexively critical attitude towards America shared by many among our liberal elites. A half-century ago, the U.S. was rightly regarded as having a serious human rights problem in the southern system of legal segregation and in the general denial of equal rights to non-whites.   Ironically, America’s racial record was chastised much more severely after it had taken steps to dismantle segregation and other legal obstacles to equality.  Indeed, the more America changed, the more tenaciously many critics, both here and abroad, held to the view of a society dominated by bigotry and “institutional racism.” 

During the latter stages of the Cold War, America was also accused of blocking popular revolution in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  Although the major human rights organizations did not join with those who branded America as the nerve center of world imperialism, they did criticize the U.S. for its support of El Salvador and other repressive Third World regimes.   At the same time, some advocates of human rights resisted the idea that democracy was a precondition for the full flowering of personal liberty.   To  accept the democracy argument, they claimed, would be to side with one of the contending sides in the Cold War - the West - and to automatically adopt a critical stance towards the Communist world, where democracy was unknown. 

The end of the Cold War, with its sudden and totally unexpected collapse of Soviet Communism, caught the critics of America off-guard.  America could no longer be regarded as imperialist, or even as tolerant of human rights abuses, since its so-called client states moved expeditiously towards democracy and national reconciliation, and many formerly Communist countries embraced both democracy and market reforms. 

It was predictable that the U.S. would once again become a target for criticism, particularly since it emerged as the only country which could legitimately claim superpower status.  Although America no longer can be accused of supporting “reactionary” regimes in Central America, it can, and is, derided for its failure to sign certain international covenants, such as the International Criminal Court.  And since America cannot be criticized seriously for supporting repression abroad, it is increasingly attacked for tolerating official persecution of its own citizens at home. 

No society, and certainly not the U.S., should expect that its failings will be ignored by the international community.  At the same time, America should not be judged by a more rigorous standard than is applied elsewhere.  During the postwar period America has forged an impressive record in promoting the spread of democracy and the respect for individual rights throughout the world, and in expanding human rights and civil liberties among its own people.  America’s record is all the more impressive because  of its success in building a peaceful and relatively integrated multinational society in an era in which ethnic diversity is more often a source of division than of strength.  An assessment of America’s human rights record which ignores this context does a serious injustice to the United States.  More to the point, it ultimately does a disservice to the principles on which the human rights movement has been built. 

Arch Puddington is vice president for research at Freedom House.

( does not necessarily endorse all the statements below. The text below can be used for classroom discussions and is published under public domain)

Written by RobinWrite

In the Western World, it is easy to think that what happens in a country located thousands of miles away from us has little to no impact on us. As a global village, however, human rights violations in one corner of the globe have a direct impact on every human on the planet, whether we realize it or not. While it may be easier to turn a blind eye to what is happening in a far-flung corner of the earth, it’s actually not in anyone’s best interest to do so. Here are 10 reasons why human rights are important to us all.

1. Keeps population density under control

When individuals live in war-torn countries or areas where severe human rights violations occur, they naturally want to escape. This often leads to a mass exodus to countries and nations that extend basic human rights to their citizens. This in turn can lead to overcrowding and place a severe strain on the public resources offered in free societies. When we work hard to ensure that basic human rights are being honored in an individual’s own country, they have no reason to mass emigrate to other countries.

2. Reduces war

When individuals are having their basic human rights denied or violated, it is natural to want to fight back. In fact, it is almost impossible to not do so. Human rights violations almost always benefit one group of people at the expense of another. Most human beings are only capable of tolerating the violation of their personhood up to a point before needing to fight back. This often results in war, which eventually brings about intense poverty, which in turn again places a strain on the resources of more democratic nations. When we address the underlying issue – human rights violations – before they erupt into outright conflict or civil war, we vastly reduce the amount of resources cleaning up the aftermath entails.

3. Reduces poverty

Again, it is important to understand that in most cases, human rights violations occur as a result of one group of people preying upon another. This generally results in severe economic imbalances among other things. In essence, the rich simply get richer and richer while the poor get poorer and poorer. Eventually, it becomes incumbent upon wealthier nations to step in and address the severe poverty issues. Ultimately, it is again more economically viable for wealthier nations to address the initial human rights violations before they result in rampant poverty that must be addressed.

4. What you are not against, you are for

Ultimately, when we refuse to stand up for basic human rights, we are condoning the violation of them. That alone is reason enough to get involved in protecting human rights.

5. What we stand against in other nations affects policy in our own

When we don’t care about policies or practices affecting women, the poor or the LGBTQ community in other nations, we are communicating that we don’t care about the importance of human rights in our own. When we demonstrate we don’t care about the importance of human rights in our own countries, we essentially set our own law and policy makers free to discriminate against these individuals. This will eventually will lead to human rights violations in our own countries, which will eventually have a direct impact on our own human rights.

6. You are a human and your rights matter

It is actually an impossibility to say that the rights of some humans matter, while the rights of others do not. If human rights matter, they matter to us all. If other humans are not entitled to basic human rights, then essentially neither are you.

7. What we stand for or against sends a message to our own children and young people

Children in particularly are highly affected by the issues and causes we do and do not stand for or against. In addition, thanks to a global media and the internet, children are becoming more and more exposed to global politics and geopolitical climates. When we turn a blind eye to gross human rights violations against women, we are sending a message to our girls that the rights of women do not matter. When we turn a blind eye to gross violations against the LBGTQ community in other nations, we are sending a message to our young LGBTQ community members that their rights also do not matter to us. When we actively fight to protect the basic human rights of all people we communicate to our own young people that they matter just as their own human rights matter.

8. Protecting the human rights of others has a direct impact on members of our military

In times of war, opposing militaries both occupy the same space and regularly capture members of the opposing military. How one countries’ soldiers are treated is often largely dependent by how their own military members are treated by the other country. When we fail to recognize the importance of human rights for even members of an opposing military, we open the door for them to violate the human rights of our own military members they capture. Honoring the human rights of military members our own country captures does not guarantee that our own military member’s rights will be honored, but it does go a long way towards ensuring that it does. In addition, it sends a message that the importance of human rights is such an important issue that it even applies to militaries in times of war – as it should.

9. Our stance on human rights affects our relationships with even our allies

Simple geography alone is always going to be a significant factor in what does and does not affect us globally. The United States occupies a continent which it shares with only two other countries. This means the US essentially only needs to maintain good relationships with two other nations to keep its borders largely protected. Most of the rest of this world does not enjoy this luxury. Most European countries share a much closer proximity to war-torn countries where massive human rights violations regularly occur. This gives them much less ability to simply turn a blind eye to these issues because they don’t affect them. While the Unites States may have a greater ability to turn a blind eye to these issues, it can seriously damage the good relationships it enjoys with most of the nations in Europe.

10. Protecting human rights affects our individual relationships with our own neighbors

While becoming involved in protecting human rights on a global scale is important, it’s just as important to work hard in our own communities to protect the human rights of our own individual neighbors. No society is perfect and most people have friends or family members that are experiencing human rights violations of some kind even in the most developed of nations. Whether it’s the inability to access basic medical care, homelessness, poverty or issues relating to incarceration, there are a number of inequalities that exist in every country including our own. When we show that we actually care about these issues and the importance of human rights for all, we build and strengthen our relationships with even our own individual neighbors.

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