Protesters in the United States and around the world demonstrated last week and over the weekend, calling for the protection of the rights of migrants and refugees, women, and other vulnerable groups, as a new administration assumed power in the United States following a bitterly divisive campaign in which now-President Trump denied sexual assault allegations and promised to enact a “Muslim ban.” [Fortune] During the past year and more recently, various universal and regional international human rights monitoring bodies commented on human rights issues relevant to those prioritized in these protests, and called on American authorities to respect fundamental rights and values.
The organizers of the January 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington, which may be the largest demonstration in U.S. history, specifically called for the protection of women’s right to be free from violence and discrimination, women of color’s right to be free from racial discrimination, migrants’ rights, environmental rights, and LGBTQIA communities’ right to be free from violence and discrimination, among other rights.
Since then, President Trump has taken several steps that civil society and human rights experts warn greatly threaten many of the same human rights championed by the demonstrators. On Friday, President Trump signed an executive order imposing a 90-day suspension on entry into the U.S. for citizens of seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia); a 120-day suspension of all refugee admissions; and an indefinite pause on the admission of refugees from Syria. The order, which was immediately implemented, unleashed chaos and protests in the country’s airports, as civil society and the courts struggled to define its scope and legality. [New York Times; NPR]
The U.S. is a State party to multiple human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which protect the rights to, among others, non-discrimination and equal protection. It is also a party to the 1967 Protocol to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, commonly referred to as the “Refugee Convention.”
Responses to the Immigration Executive Order
United Nations officials have reacted clearly and quickly to the new immigration ban. Today, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, characterized the immigration ban as unlawful discrimination based on nationality and “mean-spirited.” [Business Insider] Via Twitter, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights seemed to welcome protests in the U.S. defending migrants’ rights, writing, “We are grateful & energized to see so many #StandUp4HumanRights,” in a reference to their ongoing campaign. Echoing earlier comments by the High Commissioner, the UN Secretary General warned on Friday that the wave of “racism, xenophobia, anti-Muslim hatred and other forms of intolerance, triggered by populism” are a real threat to humanity. [UN News Centre: Holocaust] UN agencies working on refugee and migration matters explicitly called on the U.S. to “continue its strong leadership role and long tradition of protecting those who are fleeing conflict and persecution,” noting that the need has “never been greater.” [UN News Centre: Refugees] In the United States, civil society and political opposition to the ban has been vociferous and several federal courts have granted temporary injunctions limiting its impact pending further litigation. [Atlantic]
The Women’s March on Washington
The Women’s March drew millions to the streets around the world, with a human rights-centered rallying cry. While the demands of the organizers of the march are numerous and promote intersectionality- a term that identifies the overlapping nature of identities associated with groups traditionally oppressed based on those identities- the focus of their efforts is to achieve the freedom and equality of women in society. See Women’s March on Washington, Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles. Organizers emphasized the issues of violence and discrimination against women, the promotion of reproductive rights, equal pay, and access to healthcare. They also highlighted racial disparity in policing, police violence, and criminal justice reform, noting that these issues among others disproportionately affect women of color. In addition to these issue areas, the organizers recognized issues relating to migrants, LGBTQIA persons, and workers. They also noted that the march is for the promotion and protection of environmental rights and Constitutional rights, including the rights to vote, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and equal protection. See Women’s March on Washington, Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles.
The number of demonstrators who came out to participate in the primary and sister marches across the United States exceeded the expectations of the organizers. Some have reported that there were an estimated 470,000 participants in Washington D.C., and an estimated nearly five million participants around the world, counting all 673 global sister marches. [New York Times: Women’s March]
In a recent interview, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, offered his impressions on the Women’s March on Washington. He began by affirming that international human rights law protects public participation, including protesting and marching. [Washington Post] In Kiai’s view, the State must allow people to express post-election tensions in order for people to move forward, and he warned that “it is stopping that expression that leads to disaster.” [Washington Post] Kiai voiced concern over President Trump’s stance on international human rights, and expressed his intention to continue to monitor the situation in the U.S. as a part of his mandate. [Washington Post]
Other U.S. Executive Action Since Inauguration Day
Since his inauguration on January 20, 2017, President Trump has taken action on a variety of issue areas through executive orders and presidential memorandums. In particular he has issued an executive order intended to repeal the Affordable Care Act; reinstated the Mexico City Policy (also known as the “Global Gag Rule”), which prohibits federal funding to organizations providing abortion services; issued an executive order that enables expedited approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline; issued an executive order that institutes a policy that prioritizes the removal of certain aliens in the U.S., among other actions; issued an executive order to secure the southern border with the construction of a physical wall, to construct or contract more detention facilities near the Mexican border, to hire an additional 5,000 border patrol agents, and to identify U.S. aid funds supplied to Mexico in the past five years; issued an executive order, mentioned above, that bans refugees and immigrants from certain countries from entering the United States.
Civil society has spoken out against several of the changes President Trumps seeks to implement. Human Rights Watch reported on the “Global Gag Rule,” stating that this policy will “contribute to unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and women dying.” [HRW]
Situation of Human Rights in the U.S. in 2016
Several human rights monitoring bodies conducted visits or issued statements concerning the rights of specific vulnerable groups in the United States over the past year. Their findings, summarized below, are relevant to understanding both the government’s human rights obligations and the current situation in the country.
Violence against Women, Reproductive Rights, & Labor Rights
The United Nations Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice undertook a mission to the United States at the end of 2015, and wrote a report that noted several challenges to women’s rights, particularly in the areas of violence against women, reproductive rights and right to healthcare, poverty, and labor conditions that disproportionately affect women. See Report of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice on its mission to the United States of America, UN Doc. A/HRC/32/44/Add.2, 4 August 2016, para. 4. In the context of violence against women, the report pointed to inadequate gun possession regulations, and high levels of gender-based violence, including rape and sexual violence, as contributing to increases in violence, especially against women who are homeless, incarcerated, African-American, Native American, LGBTQIA, or belong to immigrant populations. See id. at paras. 27, 75-82. The working group reported both an erosion of rights related to reproductive health education and services and a lack of access to healthcare for immigrant women, in particular. See id. at paras. 28-30, 62. The Working Group, however, noted legal protections in these areas for women in the U.S., including the adoption of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 that provided healthcare to many who did not otherwise have it, and the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. See id. at paras. 11-21.
The report also noted that the percentage of women in poverty has increased; the gender-based wage gap in the U.S. persists, the reported noted, and the failure of the U.S. to realize discrimination against women in the workplace, corporate gender-based stereotypes, and inadequate conditions for domestic workers are major obstacles to women’s rights in the workforce. See id. at paras, 23-24, 31, 47-48, 50, 56, 59.
The United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent undertook a mission to the United States in early 2016 and published a report that commented on pervasive obstacles negatively impacting the rights of African-Americans in the U.S., including police misconduct, racial profiling, violations of due process, and limited access to adequate education and health services. See Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to the United States of America, UN Doc. A/HRC/33/61/Add.2, 18 August 2016, paras. 6-9. Racial profiling in the U.S., the reported noted, disproportionately affects African-Americans in the context of police surveillance and prosecution and imprisonment as part of the “War on Drugs.” See id. at paras. 24, 29, 31. Similarly, while disproportionately targeting African-Americans, the police, the report found, use high levels brutality and excessive and lethal force. See id. at paras. 20-23. The report further commented that authorities make arrests without justification, detain individuals without adequate access to legal counsel, and apply the death penalty in a racially disparate manner. See id. at paras. 24-26, 39.
According to the report, predominantly Black neighborhoods have limited access to education due to underfunded schools and de facto segregation. See id. at paras. 45-47. The report also noted barriers to health care services for African-Americans in the U.S. due to a lack of health insurance coverage and insufficient cultural competencies of health care providers. See id. at paras. 48, 49, 52.
Trafficking and Migrants’ Rights
The UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children recently urged the U.S. to adopt effective mechanisms to detect and remedy cases of trafficking for forced labor and labor exploitation. [OHCHR Press Release: Trafficking] The expert emphasized the need for coordination between anti-trafficking and immigration policies; criminalization of irregular migration often increases the vulnerabilities of people fleeing conflict, extreme poverty, and crises. [OHCHR Press Release: Trafficking]
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recently called on the U.S. to do away with its policy of mandatory detention of migrants entering the country, arguing that the practice violates international human rights law and seems to be following a punitive, or criminal, model rather than an appropriate civil model. [OHCHR Press Release: Immigration] Experts also voiced concern over the practices of separating families during migration, prohibiting access to adequate health services, and permitting indefinite detention. [OHCHR Press Release: Immigration]
Environment and Water
Three UN Special Rapporteurs on extreme poverty and human rights; on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context; and on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation expressed concern that decreased federal funding for water and sanitation system disproportionately affectes poor cities, and that high water and sewage rates create a lack of affordable housing, impacting vulnerable populations. [OHCHR Press Release: Water Crisis] One expert suggested that the subpar response by the U.S. government to the contaminated water in Flint, Michigan would not have occurred if the population in Flint was “well-off or overwhelmingly white.” [OHCHR Press Release: Water Crisis]
LGBTQIA, Violence, and Discrimination
Responding to LGBTQIA violence in the U.S., particularly the mass killing of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the U.S. to strengthen its gun control laws, and condemned the framing of the event to further homophobic and Islamophobia agendas. [OHCHR Press Release: Gun Control]. A recent UN report chronicles the “devastating impact” of gun violence on human rights. See Human rights and the regulation of civilian acquisition, possession and use of firearms, UN Doc. A/HRC/32/21, 15 April 2016.
Assembly and Association
The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association recently voiced concern about the U.S.’s use of excessive force against protestors that demonstrated against the North Dakota oil pipeline, including the use of rubber bullets, teargas, mace, compression grenades, and bean-bag rounds. [OHCHR Press Release: Environment] Additionally, in In an upcoming report based on his visit to the U.S. during the last year, the rapporteur will address the racial, social, and economic inequalities that “affect the enabling environment for the exercise of association and assembly rights,” observed by the expert. For example, the report will address the disparate use of force used against protests organized by African-Americans and challenges faced by migrant workers exercising their freedom of association in the workplace. [OHCHR Press Release: Peaceful Assembly]
Human Rights Obligations
The U.S. is party to several international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OP CRC). See OHCHR, Ratification Status for United States of America. These instruments impose specific legal obligations on the U.S. with regard to respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the human rights of all persons within its jurisdiction. As a State party to the 1967 Protocol to the Refugee Convention, the U.S. is also required to respect the right to seek and be granted asylum, and not to return people to countries where they are at risk of persecution.
For more information on the situation of human rights in the United States, visit the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights website to see 2016 hearings on the situation of indigenous persons in the U.S., of migrant workers, and of migrant and refugee children, among other thematic topics.
For more information on the UN independent experts, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and on rights including women’s rights, economic, social, and cultural rights, education rights, asylum and refugee rights, immigration and migrant’s rights, and rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.