Human Rights Indicator
by Alya Kayal, Esq.
(Updated June 8, 2001)
The Calvert-Henderson Human Rights Indicator examines the state of our human rights. The constitutional right to vote is the primary mechanism for political participation in a full and open democracy. One of the significant recent events in human rights occurred with Election 2000. In addition to the chaos, which put the international spotlight on the U.S. voting system, the elections exposed serious human rights problems, including voter disenfranchisement. After holding two fact-finding hearings with over 100 witnesses, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent bi-partisan agency established by Congress, stated, “It is not a question of a recount or even an accurate count, but more pointedly the issue is those whose exclusion from the right to vote amounted to a No Count.”1 The Commission found problems, such as the removal of non-felons from voter registration rolls based on unreliable information; assignment of African-Americans to polling sites that did not have adequate resources to confirm voter eligibility; production of “overvotes” or “undervotes” as a result of defective and complicated ballots given to many Jewish and elderly voters; closing polling places early or moving them without notice; old and defective equipment found in poor precincts; no language assistance for many Haitian Americans and Puerto Rican voters; accessibility difficulties at certain polling stations for persons with disabilities; and lack of adequate training for poll workers.
Florida is also among nine states that deny the right to vote to all ex-offenders who have served their time. Approximately 20 percent of these ex-felons are African-Americans, and advocates claim that the high rate on incarcerated African-Americans who have lost their voting rights amounts to disenfranchisement. A report by The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch found an egregious impact of U.S. disenfranchisement laws with 13 percent of African-American men (1.4 million) being disenfranchised, representing just over one-third (36 percent) of the total U.S. disenfranchised population.2 Moreover, Human Rights Watch reported that 31.2 percent of African-American men in Florida were excluded from the polls during the 2000 elections.3
Human rights in the United States is very much linked to the survival and security of American Indians and other indigenous peoples. In 1999, the Census Bureau estimated that there were 2,397,000 American Indians in the United States, approximately 0.9 percent of the resident population. American Indians face ongoing oppression and violations of basic human rights, including struggles to preserve homelands, sovereignty and natural resources rights; respect for cultural, ceremonial, and sacred sites; and protection of intellectual property rights. Offensive and stereotypical images, names and symbols of American Indian peoples are still being used, particularly in the advertising and marketing of products. Poverty, a basic denial of human rights, is a major problem in the American Indian community. For 1997-1999, the poverty rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives was 25.9 percent; the average income being $30,800 a year. This poverty rate was the highest for any U.S. population group.
There is heightened debate on the death penalty with Timothy McVeigh’s execution, increased use of DNA testing, and the exoneration of many people on death row in recent years. The Department of Justice confirmed racial disparities in the application of the death penalty in a new report. From 1995-2000, U.S. Attorneys recommended seeking the death penalty for 183 defendants (out of a total of 682 submitted for review). Of the 183 defendants, 135 persons (or 73 percent) were minorities. As of July 20, 2000, 19 defendants were under a federal sentence of death, out of which 78 percent are minorities.4 Between 1988-1994, federal prosecutors sought the death penalty against 47 defendants, 40 percent of whom were minorities. Illinois governor, George Ryan, a Republican imposed a statewide moratorium on executions at the end of January 2000, after the exoneration of 13 death row inmates. Despite this positive development, 85 people were executed in 2000 and 33 in 2001 (as of May 29, 2001) in the United States.
On a global perspective, the U.S. was voted out of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 2001 for the first time since 1947. This unfortunate development sheds doubt about our country’s progress toward embracing international human rights.
- U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. 2001. “Status Report on Probe Election Practices in Florida During the 2000 Presidential Election.” Washington D.C. (March).
- The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch. 1998. “Losing the Vote: The Impact of Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States.” Washington D.C.
- Human Rights Watch. 2000. “The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws.” Washington D.C.
- U.S. Department of Justice. 2000. “The Federal Death Penalty System: A Statistical Survey 1988-2000. Washington D.C. (September).