Close To Home: Measuring US Respect For The Human Right To Life (Part 1 of 2)
Close To Home: Measuring US Respect For The Human Right To Life
The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
Promoting freedom and democracy and protecting human rights around the world are central to U.S. foreign policy. The values captured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in other global and regional commitments are consistent with the values upon which the United States was founded centuries ago. The United States supports those persons who long to live in freedom and under democratic governments that protect universally accepted human rights.
1. Who Monitors The Monitors?
Every year the US Department of State (State Dept.) publishes reports on human rights in the countries of the world. And what do these reports have to say about human rights in the US?
Not a thing. We are told:
The Country Reports...do not purport to assess any human rights implications of actions by the United States Government or its representatives, nor do they consider human rights implications of actions by the United States Government or of coalition forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. 
The US positions itself as the global champion and monitor of human rights. But where can we find the US human rights record, measured by its own standards? The dearth of critical assessment of the US human rights record leads to the question: What would the US State Dept. report on human rights in the US, if it reported in a way that was consistent with its reports on other countries?
The Beijing Olympics have provided a historic opportunity to amplify US criticism of China's human rights record. Meanwhile, a different - but no less significant - historic opportunity passed quietly, with little notice and no howls of protest, when in October 2007 the US released the first national measurement of killings by US police. If human rights advocates in the US stop pointing the finger abroad for a moment, and apply to our own home the same standards used in judging other countries, what would we learn? This report explores these questions by:
2. Freedom From Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life
The Country Reports cover individual, civil, political, and worker rights. While the cornerstone of official US human rights rhetoric is "free and fair elections" , leaders of industrializing countries have often argued that:
A person living in extreme poverty could not care less about his or her right to vote, when he or she was unsure of his or her family's next meal. 
In fact, the very concept of "universal" human rights is open to question: are values "universal", or framed by cultural context? Consequently, this report only examines the most fundamental and universally accepted human right (or, more generally, animal right), the right to life, noting:
The right to life is the supreme right, because without it, no other rights can be enjoyed. 
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is held "as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations" . The first, and most basic, human right specified by the Declaration is Article 3:
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
The State Department's Country Reports also begin with this most basic right, expressed as freedom from society's most prevalent threat to that right: arbitrary or unlawful killing. The report explains the definition used to compile its list of "Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life":
Includes killings by governments without due process of law or where there is evidence of a political motive. Also covers extrajudicial killings (for example, the unlawful and deliberate killing of individuals carried out by order of a government or with its complicity), as well as killings by police or security forces and actions that resulted in the unintended death of persons without due process of law (for example, mistargeted bombing or shelling or killing of bystanders). The section generally excludes combat deaths and killings by common criminals if the likelihood of political motivation can be ruled out. Deaths in detention due to adverse conditions are covered in detail in the section on "Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment." 
Note that "killings by police or security forces and actions that resulted in the unintended death of persons without due process of law" does not exclude killings that the government ruled justifiable. Obviously it cannot, for then the determination of human rights abuses would be solely at the discretion of the government under investigation. This is the definition used in this report to determine the degree of freedom from arbitrary or unlawful killing in the US. The means of applying this definition must be gathered from examining its actual use in Country Reports. Looking at country reports on US friends (Australia and UK) and enemies (Syria and Cuba) provides the range of reporting practice, and a standard can be positioned within that range (The rationale for this approach is given in the Supplement).
3. Reporting Abuse: When Friends Kill, When Enemies Kill
On the right to life in Australia, the State Dept. reports: 
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. However, in September the Queensland State coroner found that a man detained on Palm Island in 2004 had been beaten by the police while in custody and had died as a result. In December, after the Queensland State prosecutor declined to prosecute the police officer involved, the Queensland premier appointed an independent investigator to review the prosecutor's decision .
The Australian Institute of Criminology, an agency of the Attorney General's Department used as the report's source for police killings and deaths in custody in Australia, most recent report on deaths in custody was for 2004.
United Kingdom (UK)
As expected, it is reported that the UK "generally respected the human rights of its citizens". Still there were problems, including: 
...increased police misconduct; occasional abuse of detainees and other persons by individual members of the police and military; overcrowded prison conditions and some inadequate prison infrastructure...
The section of "Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life" reported 5 killings by police in 2006, plus 1 wounded in a shooting ruled to be "an accident" during "a counterrorism operation". Police were not charged with a criminal or disciplinary offense (Again, note that there is no exclusion of killings ruled justifiable or accidental). Open cases from prior years included:
In summary, threats to the right to life include:
That was the US standard in reporting on the human rights practices of its allies - The Good Guys.
Human rights problems in Syria cited by the report included: 
Again we see similar threats to the right to life:
As expected, the US report on Cuba pulled no punches, beginning with the summary: 
The government's human rights record remained poor, and the government continued to commit numerous, serious abuses...beatings and abuse of detainees and prisoners, including human rights activists, carried out with impunity; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; frequent harassment, beatings, and threats against political opponents by government-recruited mobs, police, and state security officials; frequent arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights advocates and members of independent professional organizations; denial of fair trial, particularly to political prisoners; and interference with privacy, including pervasive monitoring of private communications.
And from there it launches directly into Cuba's threat to the fundamental right to life:
"The government or its agents were not known to have committed any politically motivated killings."
That is the entire section, verbatim. No killings by police or military, not even allegations. No claims of involvement in killings beyond the island. None of the reports of political prisoners, unjust imprisonment, beatings, and abuse have resulted in a death that human rights organizations or the US embassy could report on. Surely it must be an anomaly that a country with a poor human rights record, continued to abuse its citizens and neighbors - but just short of causing a single death? But the Cuba reports from previous years show:
Furthermore, to see this in the proper global perspective, it must be understood that Cuba's record of no reported killings by police or security forces was far from unique. The data in the table below was compiled from inspecting the sections titled "Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life" in all of the 2006 Country Reports, selecting only countries reporting no deaths following police contact - confirmed, alleged, or suspected. From the 191 reports, 48 such countries met that strict criteria - about 25%.
So it seems clear that among Cuba's human rights abuses, there was one glaring absence: government forces involved in fatal shootings, beatings, or torture at home or abroad. In that area, Cuba ranked among US allies Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Germany, and Canada.
That was the US standard in reporting on the human rights practices of its enemies - The Bad Guys.
In Part 2 we'll see how the US human rights record measures under its own standards.
 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
 Appendix A: Notes on Preparation of the Country Reports and Explanatory Notes
 U.S. Human Rights and Democracy Strategy
 Nguyen Tat Thanh ( Viet Nam) at the Sixty-first United Nations General Assembly, Third Committee
 "The Right To Life In International Law",
 Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
 See 
 The U.S. Human Rights Report -- Its Evolution
 Background Note: Canada
 Background Note: New Zealand
 Background Note: United Kingdom
 Background Note: Australia
 Appendix E: Country Assistance FY2006
 Israel: U.S. Foreign Assistance", Issue Brief for Congress
 The United States in the General Assembly
 Israel and the occupied territories: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2006
 Palestinians who died following an infringement of the right to
 President Delivers State of the Union Address
 State Sponsors of Terror Overview
 Background Note: North Korea
 Background Note: Libya
 Australia: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2006
 United Kingdom: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2006
 Syria: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2006
 Cuba: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2006