On January 17, the Human Rights Watch released their annual report, a review of human rights violations and practices across the globe. To preface each report, the organization’s Executive Director, Kenneth Roth, publishes an article recounting the year’s major events and summarizes his review with a theme. This year’s headline reads, “World’s Autocrats Face Rising Resistance.”
In his summary, Roth makes a point to clarify that, unlike autocrats of a bygone era, “today’s would-be autocrats typically emerge from democratic settings.” He enumerates countries who may have such personalities in power, such as Venezuela, Myanmar, China, and Saudi Arabia, before his critique fell to the United States under the Trump administration: “New governments had to pick up the defense of human rights because several important governments faltered. President Trump preferred to embrace autocrats whom he viewed as friendly.”
The 2019 report continues with a scathing critique of American human rights practices and explicitly cites the Trump administration as a cause for the country’s retrograde. However, the United States does not merely perpetuate abuse abroad; of the fourteen points enumerated in the United States’ Country Report, only two phenomena explicitly refer to abuse on foreign soil, and these categories are vague: “Foreign Policy” and “National Security.”
Categories such as “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Right to Health, and Older People’s Rights,” though perhaps not commonly understood as areas in which the United States commits human rights abuses, are areas in which the state does fail its citizens. Under the brief description of “Older People’s Rights,” the report articulates that, after a 2018 study by Human Rights Watch found that nursing homes systematically give residents antipsychotic drugs without their consent, “abusive practice remains widespread and can amount to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.”
These sorts of checks on domestic human rights abuses serve as a reminder that the United States does not only violate social contracts and international human rights law abroad, but that practices at home also contradict human rights as collectively defined by: “International humanitarian law and international human rights law, domestic or local law, data from the United Nations and other international organizations, academic or policy studies, non-governmental organization reports, and relevant media stories.”
Of the fourteen most pressing human rights violations in the United States in 2018, “Harsh Criminal Sentencing, Racial Disparities, Children in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Systems, and Incidents of Hate Crimes” are just a few of the failures that can be seen in Nashville, and Tennessee, at large.
To view Nashville as a microcosmic study of the United States’ perennial failures, one can turn to Cyntoia Brown’s highly publicized battle for clemency. The appeal, which was heard by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and supported by the Nashville City Council, cited the abuse Brown endured as a child in its call for a shortened sentence. The resolution passed by the Nashville City Council articulated it as such: “The circumstances of Brown’s conviction and sentencing, set against a lifetime of impoverishment and abuse, warrant a grant of clemency.”
While Governor Haslam’s decision rectified the harsh sentence Brown received fourteen years prior, the case itself suggests broader trends occurring in the United States—harsh sentencing, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, children receiving long prison terms, and women not being protected by relevant legislation.
Additionally, Nashville’s immigration procedures remain a problem which reflects the country’s failure to conform to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol; the United States is party only to the latter. However, as a signatory of the 1967 Protocol, the United States has entered into an international agreement in which it committed to protecting asylum seekers and refugees from refoulement (return to the origin country).
As this 2018 headline from the Tennessean suggests: “Tennessee immigration judges order record number of deportations,” the United States’ approach to immigration law is not in strict accordance with that stipulated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In fact, not only has the Memphis Immigration Court, the only immigration court in Tennessee, been receiving a record number of cases from people seeking asylum, but judges in Tennessee, Arkansas, and northern Mississippi have ordered fifty percent more deportations under the Trump administration than they did under the Obama administration.
Although the Convention and the Protocol do not specify protection for asylum seekers whose cases are heard and appeals denied (meaning that an asylum seeker not granted refugee status no longer requires protection by the state in which she has filed her case), the record number of denials does beg the question as to whether or not American courts are considering the definition of “refugee” and grounds for protection as stipulated by the Convention and Protocol; the answer is a resounding no.
In a complicated, and often convoluted, analysis of American legislation being in accordance with international norms, Tennessee’s practices reflect those of the country at large. The United States is not granting immigrants and asylum seekers the rights it has committed to protecting. This quick recap of the reality of immigration in Tennessee supports Human Rights Watch 2018 Report’s findings: rights of non-citizens are being curtailed.
With Cyntoia Brown’s case and Memphis’ immigration statistics in mind, Tennessee is a microcosmic testament to the veracity of the 2018 report. The United States does systematically violate human rights domestically, of both citizens and non-citizens. While the report is a product of years of cumulative research and analysis of global and domestic trends, its conclusion is timely: the United States, indeed the world, must actively work to support universal human rights.
The report summarizes a year of abuse; it will be used in research for decades to come and will, in part, dictate how 2018 is represented and studied in subsequent scholarship. Its conclusions should be taken seriously, arguments should not be made to mitigate the findings, but rather to construct attitudes, initiatives, and advocacy for peoples whose rights are being curtailed in 2019.