January 09, 2022

Human Rights Violations of the United States Government

Vijay Prashad

IN October 2021, the United States won an election to serve a three-year term on the United Nations Human Rights Council. US president, Joe Biden welcomed the news, saying that the United States welcomes the opportunity to ‘lead the world toward a more peaceful, prosperous future, grounded in respect for human dignity’. In early December 2021, the United States hosted a ‘summit for democracy’, to which the US invited 111 countries out of the 193 countries which are member states of the United Nations (in other words, the US left out 82 countries, many of whom were actively not allowed to participate in the summit for democracy). At the summit, President Biden said that the United States and its allies must ‘protect human rights of people everywhere’.

There is nothing new in the way the United States uses the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights' to drive its own agenda. When other motives seem to splutter, the United States pulls out these terms to camouflage its failures. In 2003, for instance, the US government began an illegal war against Iraq, illegal because it came without a UN Security Council authorisation. The US tried to get an authorisation based on the argument that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (this was despite the fact that the UN’s chief investigator, Hans Blix, had said that no such weapons were in existence in Iraq). After the brutal US bombing raid and the destruction of the Iraqi state structure, the US conceded that there were no such weapons in Iraq.

US president, George W Bush gave a speech in 2005 to announce the ‘freedom agenda’ and to argue that the war of aggression against Iraq was for ‘democracy promotion’. It was, of course, for no such thing. In our time, the US has drummed up support for its hybrid war campaign against China by claiming that Chinese firms do not respect international property law; when that motive was ineffective, the US announced this ‘democracy agenda’. The words ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ are used casually by the United States to assert – with minimal evidence – that the United States is the apogee of democratic and liberal values; and based on this assumption, the US gives itself the right to undermine the sovereignty of its adversaries.


As Biden made his pronouncement at the summit for democracy, the latest variant of the Covid-19 disease – Omicron – made its appearance within the United States. Biden’s government came to power largely on the claim that he would uphold science and be more effective in his management of the pandemic. In fact, Biden’s government is as hamstrung as any other by the attrition of the public health infrastructure in the United States due to long-term austerity policies.

From 2010 to 2019, the budget for the ‘US centre for disease control’ was cut by 10 per cent, and over the course of these past two decades, the US has gradually cut the ‘infectious diseases rapid response reserve fund’. From 2001 to 2019, the federal funding for state and local officials fell from an already small $1 billion to $650 million. A superb Associated Press investigation found that ‘nearly two-thirds of Americans live in counties that spend more than twice as much on policing as nonhospital health care, which includes public health’. Between 2008 and 2017, as a consequence of the austerity, state and local health departments had to fire 55,000 people – one in five health workers.

In 2008, the ‘association of schools and programmes in public health’ reported that by 2020 ‘the nation will be facing a shortfall of more than 250,000 public health workers’. Nothing was done to heed this warning. Into this eviscerated landscape came the pandemic. By any metric, the US has failed to expand the health care rights of its population, in violation of its obligations to the 1946 Constitution of the World Health Organisation and to the 1948 UN declaration of human rights. Currently, the death toll in the United States is 826,000 (more than twice the number of US troops who died in World War II).

Looking at the more granular level data, ‘Human Rights Watch’ reported, ‘The grossly disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on black, brown, and native people, connected to longstanding disparities in health, education, and economic status, revealed the enduring effects of past overtly racist laws and policies and continuing impediments to equality’. The reference to these overtly racist laws alerts us to the continued problems of racist policing and of the racist incarceration system in the United States. The United States has the highest per-capita incarceration rate as well as the largest number of people in prison (over two million people). In 2021, at least 900 people were killed by the police in the United States (five people killed every two days); the rate of shootings is more than twice as high for African Americans than for white Americans. The Associated Press story noted that local governments in the United States spend twice as much on policing as on nonhospital health care.


Stunning that US president Biden’s speeches about ‘human rights’ are taken so seriously. This is particularly the case given the widespread evidence of US war crimes – revealed by the Wikileaks organisation through the documents leaked by Chelsea Manning – in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fact that there has been no judicial inquiry into these crimes tells us more about the weakness of the international institutions rather than of the lack of evidence of these crimes (video evidence of war crimes, reports by the US military, and testimonies by the victims are all in the public domain).

Recently, the New York Times published confidential Pentagon documents called the ‘civilian casualties files’ about US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. These documents show that the US is responsible for a range of war crimes, most of which had been previously covered up. For example, in July 2016, US warplanes bombed the town of Tokhar (Syria), which killed 120 civilians. At the time, the US said that it had attacked ISIS. When it was pointed out at that time that the victims were not from ISIS but were farmers, the US said that it had indeed killed 24 civilians (but had killed 85 ISIS fighters). Investigators from the Times visited Tokhar in December 2018 and found that all 200 villagers had trekked out of the village to four houses at the edge of Tokhar, where they felt safer. They said ISIS was nowhere near them, which would have been noted by the US drones that flew over them for weeks. These four houses were bombed by the US airforce, which killed the 120 civilians who had taken shelter there. The military said that it had ‘no evidence of negligence or wrongdoing’ and that ‘no further action’ was necessary.

Qusay Saad, who lost his wife and two children in a US bombing of civilians in Mosul in January 2017, said of the US war, ‘What happened wasn’t liberation. It was the destruction of humanity’. Saad’s sentiment should be more widely shared. It captures the actual impact of the United States in places such as Iraq and Syria. What happened to Qusay Saad and his family is not so far removed from what is currently happening to hundreds of thousands of families inside the United States who are suffering from State failure regarding their health care and their economic travails. Biden’s ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ are hollow words, cynical expressions to justify impunity for past and current violations of human rights by the United States and to drum up sentiment for more US conflicts, this time against China and Russia as well as Cuba and Venezuela.