Most Americans have heard of human rights abuses occurring in other countries around the world, but many do not realize that human rights are being violated in the U.S. as well.  Despite guarantees provided by domestic and international law, the U.S. does not fully protect the rights of individuals. Below are some examples of the failure of the U.S. to comply with international human rights obligations.  In an effort to increase awareness of human rights in the U.S., The Advocates for Human Rights has also  created a series of human rights toolkits that examine important human rights issues and that offer tools to help Americans advocate for positive social change. 


According to the U.S. Census, 42.9 million Americans lived below the poverty line in 2009 and this number is increasing. The child poverty rate (20.7%) is the highest among developed countries, despite the U.S. having the highest national income. 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness in the course of a year. Government assistance programs designed to address poverty, such as food stamps, may be missing as many as four in ten eligible people. While persons from every race, gender, and ethnicity live in poverty, Census Bureau findings show that racial minorities and women are disproportionately affected. In 2009, 25.8% of blacks lived in poverty compared to 9.4% of non-Hispanic whites, while households headed by single women were more than twice as likely to be living in extreme poverty as households headed by single men.




Systematic discrimination and racial bias continue to exist in the United States. For instance, as a result of unequal pay and more limited access to high-paying jobs, women, persons with disabilities, and racial and ethnic minorities must all work more hours to achieve the same standard of living as white males. African-Americans face particular obstacles and are “more likely to live in poverty, less likely to own businesses, less likely to hold a university degree, and much more likely to have served time in prison than members of other groups.” Discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender, or disability persists despite laws protecting these groups. The LGBT community is unprotected by federal guarantees of their rights, and as a result, faces discrimination in education, public accommodations, and the right to a family.



Violence Against Women

Violence against women continues to be a serious problem in the United States. Nearly one in four women is raped or beaten by a partner during adulthood. An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. In 2008, 35% of female murder victims were killed by an intimate partner. Women and girls are more likely to be victims of human trafficking, most often for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Up to 50,000 women and girls are trafficked into the U.S. each year.



The Justice System

The U.S. continues to have problems providing equal access to justice for all and protecting the rights of prisoners. Racial profiling by law enforcement officials contributes to the disproportionately high numbers of minorities in prison. Though the U.S. guarantees a right to counsel in criminal cases, most public defender offices are understaffed and underpaid, resulting in inadequate legal advice for poor defendants, even in cases involving lengthy sentences or the death penalty. Harsh anti-crime measures erode the rights of prisoners by creating conditions where they will be subject to abuse, such as prison overcrowding, insufficient protections for incarcerated women, the housing of juvenile offenders with adults, and juvenile life without parole.



Voter Disenfranchisement

Certain groups in the U.S. face high barriers to exercising their right to vote or are excluded from voting entirely. In a majority of states, felons on parole or probation are denied the right to vote, while a handful of states deny the right to vote permanently, even after the individual has served his or her sentence. Residents of the District of Columbia are also denied the right to elect full voting representation in Congress. Citizens with limited mobility, low incomes, or who lack stable housing may also find it difficult to vote because of restrictive voter registration laws.




Despite commitments made in international and domestic law, the U.S. system often fails to protect the human rights of migrants. Migrants experience discrimination and intimidation in the workplace and in society at large; unequal access to basic services such as health care, housing, and education; arbitrary infringement of their civil liberties; and the denial of their fundamental right to due process. Immigration enforcement policies that enlist local police in immigration raids undermine basic trust in local law enforcement, alienate immigrant communities, and create an atmosphere of fear. Once detained, immigrants face harsh conditions, such as being housed with individuals convicted of criminal offenses; “inappropriate and excessive use of restraints; inadequate access to healthcare, including mental health services; and inadequate access to exercise.”



Death Penalty

Perhaps the most basic human right is the right to life. In the U.S., there are hundreds of people on death row facing the possibility of execution without adequate legal representation. When the U.S. imposes the death penalty, it often operates irresponsibly, frequently overlooking serious flaws in legal proceedings. Over 138 people have been released from death row since 1973, raising serious doubts about the integrity of the death penalty system. As of 2009, there were 139 countries that had abolished the death penalty, either by law or by practice. The U.S. remains among the minority that retain the death penalty and is one of the top five countries in the number of executions it carries out.



Civil and Political Liberties

The U.S. government has sharply limited certain civil and political liberties as part of its efforts to prevent and prosecute terrorism. These limitations have fallen most heavily on immigrants, on Muslims and Arabs, and on suspected terrorists. Immigrants face tough new procedures that deny them due process rights. Thousands of Muslim and Arab individuals have been the targets of selectively enforced legislation, government monitoring, and detention without charge, despite having no link to criminal activity. The government denied rights to suspected terrorists, held them in secret detention without access to courts, engaged in torture and abusive interrogations, and returned them to countries where they would face a high likelihood of further torture. All persons in the United States have felt the impact of anti-terrorism actions, such as new surveillance laws that make it difficult to know about and challenge government searches in the courts, and even surveillance with no judicial oversight at all.




In the United States, there is a significant difference between the educational achievement of minority and poor populations and their wealthier white counterparts. The achievement gap is present in several different areas: grades, standardized test scores, drop-out rates, and college completion rates. According to U.S. Department of Education, children in low-income communities are three grade levels behind their high-income counterparts by the time they reach the fourth grade. This disproportionately affects African Americans, Latinos, and Native American students who are three times more likely to live in these areas. Education level helps determine the potential future income of students, thus creating a dangerous cycle for low-income families whose children are unlikely to achieve the same educational results as wealthier children, trapping them in generational poverty..



Health Care

Nearly 50 million nonelderly Americans, or 18.8% of the population, were without health insurance in 2009. 45,000 people die each year because they are uninsured. More than three-quarters of the uninsured come from working families and four in ten are individuals and families who are poor. Minorities are also more likely to be uninsured. About 30.9% of Hispanics and 19% of African-Americans are uninsured compared to 10.8% of whites. Another 25 million americans are “underinsured,” with coverage so meager they often postpone medical care due to costs. Even when health care is available, noticeable disparities in the quality of care still exist between racial, socio-economic, and ethnic groups. One study found that closing the black-white mortality gap would eliminate a startling “83,000 excess deaths per year among African Americans.”



  • American Civil Liberties Union and Rights Working Group. “The Persistence of Racial and Ethnic Profiling in the United States: A Follow-up Report to the U.N. Committee on Racial Discrimination.”  (June 2009). 8.
  • American Society of International Law, International Agreements and U.S. Law.
  • Amnesty International. “Abolitionist and Retentionist Countries.”
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Homicide Trends in the U.S.”
  • Consumer Reports. “Are you Really Covered? Why 4 in 10 Americans can’t depend on their health insurance.”
  • Coffin v. United States (1895). Death Penalty Information Center. “Facts About the Death Penalty.”
  • Domestic Violence intervention Program. “Crime Victimization in the U.S- Statistical Overview.”
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Hate Crime Statistics.”
  • Food Research and Action Center. “Food Stamp Participation in May 2008 Sets Another Record High.”
  • Heartland Alliance. Realizing Human Rights in Illinois: A Report on the From Poverty to Opportunity Campaign Action Forums. (Chicago: Heartland Alliance, 2008), 5.
  • Human Rights Watch. “Presumption of Guilt: Human Rights Abuses of Post-September 11 Detainees.”
  • The Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. “The Uninsured: A Primer.” (December 2010)
  • Kent v. Dulles (1958). National Coalition on Health Care. “Health Insurance Coverage.”
  • National Organization for Women. “Violence Against Women in the United States.”
  • Pan American Health Organization. “Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation.” 
  • Results. “Hunger and Poverty in the United States.”
  • Rolling Rains Report. “US Fair Housing: More than 10,000 complaints filed last year, most alleging disability discrimination.”
  • Society at a Glance 2005. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
  • Teach for America. “A National Injustice.”
  • UDHR.
  • UDHR. “Know Your Rights!”
  • United Nations Treaty Collection, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
  • United Nations Treaty Collection, Declarations and Reservations.
  • U.S. Census Bureau. “Current Population Survey (CPS).” Updated:2009.
  • U.S Census Burea. “Health Insurance Highlights.”   
  • U.S. Constitution,
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “National Health Care Disparities Report, 2005.”
  • U.S. Department of Justice.  “Homicide Trends in the U.S.”
  • U.S. Supreme Court. Paul v. Virginia, 75 U.S. 7 Wall. 168 168 (1869) Paul v. Virginia. 75 U.S. (7 Wall.) 168