Part of our task at the CLDC is to uphold and defend the human rights of individuals engaged in political struggle as well as those who, historically, have been systematically deprived of economic and social dignity. The U.S. has committed some of the most serious human rights abuses in modern times. Some of these abuses are systemic policy orchestrations designed to maintain and further class divisions. Other abuses aim to make dissent criminal, meaningless, or, at the very least, subject to the ever-watchful eye of the state.
Consistently, media covering President Obama’s historic 2-day visit to Cuba has focused on the need for Cuba to clean up its human rights record if it truly wants to normalize relations with the U.S. While Cuba may have some shortcomings when it comes to its human rights record, the U.S. should be hesitant in its condemnation of others for abuses when the U.S. commits and perpetuates serious abuses at home (and abroad). For some perspective, in 2011, The Guardian calculated in order, the 100 worst human rights abusers. They used a formula that input data from the Human Development Index. According to the rankings, the U.S. is just two levels below Cuba (the list is in descending order, starting with the most abusive).
Given the recent condemnation of Cuba’s human rights record by some U.S. politicians, we thought it would be appropriate to remind folks where the U.S. stands in terms of documented human rights abuses, so we compiled a brief list.
Criminalization of the Homeless
Cities around the U.S. routinely pass laws that effectively criminalize the status of being homeless despite the failure to even remotely provide adequate shelter. Even the U.S. Department of Justice thinks this trend is out of control and a possible violation of the Eighth Amendment. Plenty of cities have also enacted laws that prohibit sharing food with the hungry.
For-Profit Legal System
Many U.S. cities and counties now have varying forms of debtor prison. Those who cannot pay fines in the first place are now threatened with more fines, drivers license suspensions, or jail. Far from crime prevention, many police departments operate as revenue generators for their particular city, county or state. Harvard Law Review published a great piece about how law enforcement is used to “extract revenue from the poor.” Of course, we can add the innumerable for-profit prisons in the U.S. It’s prisons like these that create the kind of judges who would throw away the lives of children for a few bucks.
The state, along with private industry, has been keeping track of electronic communications for ages. Edward Snowden finally revealed the enormous magnitude of the State’s spying activity on citizens and non-citizens in 2013. Clearly the possibility of being watched at every instance has a chilling effect on the exercise of speech and speech related activity. The U.S. was also caught spying on the leaders of other countries, clearly a human rights violation.
When President Obama admitted in 2014 that the U.S. “tortured some folks” during the endless War on Terror, it wasn’t a surprise to many. Of course, no officials that knew about or authorized the torture have been held accountable. In fact, it seems that with no meaningful prosecutions or accountability, politicians (and potential politicians) have been emboldened to praise past acts of torture and advocate for an escalation of torture practices (see, e.g., Trump, Rubio, and Cruz). Just to be clear–voting these folks out of office or refusing to vote for them is not an act of accountability.
And it’s not just the military engaging in torture either. Last year, The Guardian revealed a secret police facility in the middle of Chicago where over 7,000 people (over 86% black) were “disappeared.” Many reports of torture have surfaced from those who were held at the secretive Homan Square facility. In addition, the number of people killed by law enforcement, often after being tortured, has resulted in indictments and investigations into the human rights violations currently perpetrated by U.S. law enforcement agents.
Criminalization of Dissent
As a result of mass surveillance, a for-profit legal system, and the tendency of capitalism to breakdown any barrier to the exchange of capital, a number of laws have been passed in the last decade that essentially criminalize dissent. It seems like any form of activism that challenges the status quo is viewed as a potential terrorist threat. The FBI has been monitoring Black Lives Matter Activists (here’s just five examples), the FBI and police have infiltrated countless environmental and peace groups, and passed massive legislation to paint animal liberation activists as terrorists.
There is the additional trend by law enforcement to arrest leaders of protests before protests even begin—charging them with things like “attempted disorderly conduct.” Even when a protest does occur, protestors will often face disorderly conduct charges or other charges. Essentially, the trend has been to criminalize nonviolent protest to the greatest extent possible (see this great TED talk from CLDC advisory board member Will Potter for additional discussion).
Support of Foreign Military Dictators
The list is so long that we can’t even fit it in this post. Here’s a list of 35 to start you out.
We could go on pointing out other abuses originating from the U.S. government: militarized police patrolling poor black neighborhoods on a regular basis, some of the least protective labor laws in the west, persistent violence against women, drone strikes on unarmed civilians, or the rampant state-sanctioned environmental racism impacting poor and working class neighborhoods across the nation (See Flint, MI for the latest example). No country is perfect—we get that. But it seems unwise to condemn others when you can’t even get your own house in order.
An immense amount of effort by thousands of journalists and organizations has gone into pointing out the hypocrisy of the U.S., yet the affect of such truth-telling has not brought new policy or the appearance of any meaningful action. On the contrary, the conditions seem to be getting worse. Nevertheless, it is important that we delegitimize any claims by the U.S. as a protector of human rights at home or abroad. To be clear, this article isn’t to suggest that criticism can only come from the mouth of the blameless—rather, it is to caution against the dominant narrative that the U.S. protects human rights at home and abroad.