An Amnesty International report has highlighted serious human rights violations in the US - violations that are on the increase!

By Third World Network

On 6 October 1998, Amnesty International launched a campaign to improve human rights protection for all those who live on US soil.

In a statement to mark the USA Campaign launch, Pierre Sane, secretary-general, Amnesty International, said, 'Amnesty International has been knocking on the doors of Congress for the past 37 years. We have been telling the US authorities that cruelty does not just happen elsewhere. Serious human rights violations are not just a foreign affair. They are happening in the US today and - worst of all - some are on the increase.'

He then went on to ask, 'And where is the public outcry? Where are the zealous defenders of morality when a mentally ill inmate is shackled to a four-point metal restraint board for 12 weeks? When a pregnant woman is shackled during her seven hours of labour?

'Where is the public outcry at the shockingly cruel conditions in many of the nation's jails and prisons?

'What we have in the US political establishment today is,' he concluded, a 'clear hypocrisy and inconsistency'.

An Amnesty International report on the current human rights situation in the USA, published to accompany the launch of the campaign, highlights:

* A widespread and persistent pattern of police brutality: Police abuse is such a widespread problem in the USA that millions of dollars are paid out every year to alleged victims. Reports of discriminatory treatment by police towards racial and ethnic minorities are common, and black people arrested for minor offences, for instance, appear particularly liable to suffer police brutality. The vast majority of complaints relate to police officers beating people during arrests, searches, traffic stops or street incidents - especially in inner cities with large minority groups.

Many suspects in police custody have died while forced face down in restraints - most often when being 'hogtied' with wrists and ankles tied together. While a number of police departments have now banned this method, others continue to use it.

* Endemic physical and sexual violence against prisoners: The USA's current response to crime centres on the imposition of harsher punishments, and the country now has one of the largest prison populations in the world. Some prisons show a high level of inmate-on-inmate violence - with guards at times inciting attacks or not acting to prevent them. Inmates have also been beaten by guards and subjected to sexual abuse, including rape - a form of torture.

A particularly disturbing development is the growth of high-tech security units, where inmates are placed in long-term or even permanent isolation. Prisoners, many of them mentally ill, are frequently placed in mechanical restraints for hours or days on end. Despite being outlawed under international standards, shackling of prisoners - including their transportation in leg irons - is widespread in the US prison system. In some jurisdictions pregnant women have been shackled.

Not all sectors of society are equally affected by this, however. In a country still struggling to eradicate racial discrimination, more than 60% of prisoners come from racial minorities. Up to one-third of all young black men are in jail or prison, or on parole or probation.

* The death penalty - an arbitrary, unfair and racist punishment: The death penalty is now a political campaigning tool in the USA, and it is being applied in a racist way. Black and white people are the victims of violent crime in roughly equal numbers, yet 82% of people executed since 1977 have been convicted of killing white victims. Factors like aggravating circumstances cannot explain this disparity.

In violation of international standards, executions of the mentally impaired and juvenile offenders continue in the USA. In addition, at a time when there is a worrying escalation in the number of executions, many capital defendants are not receiving adequate legal representation.

Most US states have now adopted execution by lethal injection, claiming that it is 'more humane'. But the cruelty of this punishment is inescapable, regardless of the method used, and in many cases, inmates have suffered prolonged deaths due to medical staff having trouble finding a vein to inject the poison into, or by having to wait with needles in their arms while last-minute appeals were heard.

* Incarceration of asylum-seekers: Growing numbers of people fleeing persecution find themselves behind bars after arriving in the USA. Asylum-seekers have committed no crime, yet they are often held in jails and prisons with criminal prisoners. Unlike criminal suspects, they are often denied bail and do not know when they will be released.

Asylum-seekers held in these conditions are not differentiated from other inmates: they are often held in inhumane conditions, strip-searched, shackled, chained and verbally or physically abused. They are often prevented from meeting with their lawyers, interpreters and asylum organisations. Women asylum-seekers are more likely than men to be detained with criminals, and there is a lack of alternative accommodation for children - who according to international law should be kept together with their families and never be held in detention.

* Arms exports - the US' contribution to human rights abuses in other countries: As the world's largest producer and exporter of arms, the US contributes to human rights abuse by supplying equipment and training to governments and armed groups known to have carried out torture, political killings and other abuses. The types of electro-shock weapons exported by the USA have been used to torture victims around the world, and are now banned in some Western European countries and in Canada. In the USA, too little is being done to ensure that such equipment is not being used to commit human rights violations - current US laws and procedures are just not addressing the problem.

'Given its prominent role in the global arms market, the USA should aim for full transparency regarding all transfers, and adopt a Code of Conduct aimed at stopping torturing countries from acquiring both the technology and the know-how,' Sane said. 'Any transfer likely to contribute to human rights abuses should be immediately stopped.'

* Reluctance to abide by international standards: Despite the USA's leading role in establishing the international system of human rights protection, it has been reluctant to submit itself to international scrutiny and to abide by the same minimum standards that it demands from other countries. In addition, the level of human rights protection recognised in US law often falls short of some of the minimum standards set down in international treaties, and important internationally recognised rights and standards are not always reflected in domestic US law - like the ban on using the death penalty against juvenile offenders.

Drawing attention to the failure of the US to ratify many international human rights covenants, Sane said, 'The truth is that many standards of human rights protection in the United States have not kept pace with evolving international standards of decency. The United States has one of the worst ratification records of all industrialised nations. Together with Somalia, the US is the only country in the world not to have ratified the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.'

He observed that though the US government uses these same international standards to judge others, it fails to apply the same yardstick at home. It has campaigned vigorously to block the establishment of a truly effective and independent international criminal court. And it continues to fuel violations abroad by providing weapons and expertise to governments that deliberately violate the rights of their citizens.

He concluded by saying, 'Amnesty International can only welcome the current soul-searching (in the US) on morality in politics. But unless this exercise addresses the central needs for the protection of the dignity of the weakest groups in society, human rights in the US will continue to be a tale of two nations: rich and poor, white and black, male and female.' - Third World Network Features

The above article was compiled from the reports, briefings, focus and press statements relating to AI: USA Campaign - Rights for All.