Most of you have probably heard of Amnesty International - an organization that monitors human rights in over 170 countries around the world. But did you know that Amnesty recently launched a campaign in the US?
Many people consider the United States to be an international human rights leader. So the fact that Amnesty International was able to put together a 153 page report - listing abuses of the human rights of women, men and children across the US - comes as quite a surprise. The ultimate goal of Amnesty's USA Campaign is to focus public awareness on these violations and promote concrete reforms to bring them to an end.
So, what do they mean when they talk about Human Rights and what kinds of abuses did they find?
Generally, Human Rights are the basic rights of ALL people - regardless of their color, sex, age, national or ethnic origin, religious beliefs or economic status - to live in freedom and be treated fairly. In 1948 the United Nations created The Universal Declaration of Human Rights - a list of all the basic rights that all people should have. The rights, generally, include such things as:
- The right to live in freedom and safety.
- The right to legal protection and a fair trail
- The right to freedom of movement - leaving and entering your countries as you wish
- The right to freedom of religion, thought and expression
- The right to ask another country to protect you from danger in your country.
- The right to marry and have a family.
- The right to own things
- The right to education
For a complete list, link to: www.un.org or www.un.org/Pubs/CyberSchoolBus/humanrights/resources.htm
Amnesty International's report found many abuses in the US - specifically, cases of police brutality, the abuse of prisoners, especially women and children, and the abuse of people trying to seek asylum, or safety, in the US. For details on the year long campaign, visit: http://www.amnestyusa.org/rightsforall/index.html or http://www.rightsforall-usa.org/
A large part of the Amnesty International report had to do with prison related issues - human rights abuses of prisoners and the use of the death penalty. According to the report, inmates across the country, including mentally ill prisoners, are being restrained in ways that are cruel, inhuman and sometimes life-threatening. Health care in many facilities is seriously inadequate. Physical and sexual abuse is common. Complaints include grossly deficient treatment for the mentally ill; lack of provision for women's health needs; failure to deliver prescribed drugs; and refusing or delaying necessary medical treatment.
There is a growing movement that feels that the United States is spending too much money on building prisons and putting people in jail - rather than focusing on other important and preventative issues such as education, health care, housing, rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration. The state of California, for example, now spends more on prisons than on higher education, and over the past decade has built 19 prisons and only one branch university.
The United States spends more on prisons and puts more people in jail than any other industrialized country in the world. Over 5 million people are in prison, on parole or probation, or are incarcerated in INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) detention centers. Since 1980 the number of inmates has more than tripled (there were only 500,000 people in jails in 1980) and the number of women inmates has quadrupled. Between 1971 and 1992, public spending on prisons alone jumped from $2.3 billion to $31.2 billion.
Many activists believe that the prison system unfairly targets women, minorities and poor people. They refer to statistics that show that more than 60 per cent of people in jail are racial or ethnic minorities. In 1994, one in three black men between the ages of 20-29 were in prison, jail, on probation or on parole. Black men were 7 times more likely than white men to be in prison. In 1970 there were 5,600 women in prison - by 1996, there were 75,000. 60% of women prisoners are minorities - Afro-American and Latino. For them, these statistics show that minorities are unfairly targeted.
For activists, the difference in sentencing for illegal drugs such as cocaine are examples of racism. A majority of people arrested for using or dealing in powder cocaine arrests are white, while crack cocaine arrests are mostly of African-Americans. Under federal law, for a five year mandatory minimum sentence - it takes only five grams of crack cocaine - but 500 grams (100 times as much) of powder cocaine.
A large part of Amnesty's report concerns juveniles - kids your age. The report deals with issues such as the growing trend to treat children as adults and to put them in jail with adults. Many believe this just "hardens" young offenders and increases the chances of repeat offenses. Juvenile offenders in adult facilities are also at higher risk of physical and sexual abuse, as well as murder and suicide.
Other issues addressed in Amnesty's report include the treatment of child asylum seekers and the overall failure of our system to meet international standards for the treatment of children, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The US is one of only two countries (the other one is Somalia) which haven't signed this UN Convention, which prohibits executing people for crimes they committed when they were under 18 years of age. Amnesty International believes that "however heinous the crime, the sentencing to death and execution of a young person denies the possibility of rehabilitation, and cannot be justified on the grounds of retribution or deterrence".
After signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits passing a death sentence to anyone less than 18 at the time of the crime, US state authorities went ahead and executed seven prisoners for crimes committed when they were under 18, and sentenced to death more than 70 others. The U.S. is one of only five countries with documented execution of juvenile offenders since 1990. These countries include Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
As part of its campaign for human rights in the United States, Amnesty recommends (in part) that the USA:
- Establish Independent Monitoring Bodies to Investigate Allegations of Police Brutality and Abuse in Jails and Prisons
- Ban the Use of Remote Control Electro-shock Stun Belts, Hog-tying, and Other Dangerous Restraint Procedures
- Ban the Routine Use of Restraints on Pregnant Women Prisoners and All Restraints During Labor
- Restrict and Regulate the Interactions of Male Staff with Female Inmates to Prevent Rape and Sexual Abuse in Jails and Prisons
- Ratify, Without Reservation, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (of all the countries in the world, only the United States and Somalia have not ratified this Convention)
- Ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
- Ensure that Asylum-seekers are Detained Only as a Last Resort, and Never in Jails and Never with Criminal Defendants
- Ban the Death Penalty for Juvenile Offenders as a First Step Toward Total Abolition
- Adopt and Rigorously Enforce a Binding Code of Conduct, Based on Human Rights, Covering all Transfers of Military, Security and Police Equipment, Services and Expertise
There are a number of organizations that address these issues and try to do something to improve the situation. The Prison Activist Organization, www.prisonactivist.org for instance, believes that "progressive social change, not mass incarceration, is the solution to crime". Their site deals with news, stats, and resources on the prison related issues, with a focus on human rights and economics.