What's at Stake

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the foundational document of the modern human rights system. Since then, the United States has provided global leadership on many human rights issues. But its embrace of the rights enshrined in the UDHR has been partial and selective.

The ACLU Human Rights Program (HRP) is specifically dedicated to holding the U.S. government accountable to universal human rights principles and rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. HRP is part of a reemerging movement of U.S.-based organizations that use the international human rights framework in domestic rights advocacy.

To this end, HRP conducts human rights research, documentation, and public education, and it engages in advocacy and litigation before U.S. courts and international bodies, including the United Nations and regional human rights mechanisms (such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights).

By invoking international human rights norms and strategies, the ACLU has been able to make advances where concerns had previously been dismissed by the courts. Having adopted an integrative approach to human rights advocacy that incorporates human rights documentation, international advocacy, and coalition building, in ad­dition to utilizing domestic litigation and legisla­tive strategies, HRP is strengthening ACLU work to advance human rights in the United States.

Current Issues

Human Rights and Criminal Justice

The criminal justice system in the United States raises serious constitutional and human rights concerns. The human rights violations inherent in the system play out on a number of fronts: racial disparities in arrests, convictions, and sentencing; draconian sentences mandating that nonviolent offenders serve the rest of their lives behind prison walls; the heightened impact of incarceration on vulnerable populations, such as children and the mentally ill; and more.

Human Rights and Immigration

Numerous international human rights documents firmly establish the principle that no human being can be “illegal” or outside the protection of the law. Yet despite the clearly established principle that discrimination and abuse based on immigration status are violations of human rights, U.S. government policies continue to sanction human rights violations against migrants and immigrants.

Human Rights and the Death Penalty

The U.S. death penalty system flagrantly violates human rights law. It is often applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner without affording vital due process rights. Moreover, methods of execution and death row conditions have been condemned as cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment and even torture. The U.S. death penalty system has also failed to protect the innocent—from 1973 through December 2014, 150 innocent people were exonerated from death row.

Human Rights and National Security

Many people in the United States and around the world remember the horrific events of September 11, 2001, as some of the worst crimes against humanity of the 21st century. While the international community was united behind the United States' call to bring those responsible to justice, the subsequent struggle against terrorism took a wrong turn, undermining the international legal frameworks and accountability mechanisms that were developed after World War II.

Human Rights and Privacy

In 1992, the United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a human rights treaty that guarantees privacy rights. More specifically, Article 17 of the ICCPR protects everyone from arbitrary or unlawful interferences with their “privacy, family, home, or correspondence.”

Human Rights and Racial Justice

Race has been inextricably woven into the fabric of the international human rights framework from the beginning. The ACLU works within this framework to advocate for racial equality and fight discrimination at all levels of government. It calls upon the United States to heed its obligations under international human rights treaties and address these inequalities once and for all, specifically by forming a plan of action to fully comply with ICERD.

Human Rights and Labor Trafficking

In America, one group of migrant workers faces unique forms of human rights abuses that are directly attached to their visa status: guestworkers (aka temporary workers). In the U.S. government’s H-2B guestworker program, visas tie guestworkers to a single “employer-sponsor” without the ability to change jobs. This makes the worker’s ability to obtain and retain status in the United States entirely dependent on their remaining on good terms with their employer. The program allows the employer to treat the worker as a disposable commodity, using the labor and then tossing the worker away if they complain about any aspect of their job, seek to educate other workers about their legal rights, are in any way non-compliant with the demands of the employer, or for any reason at all.

Human Rights and Women's Rights

International human rights law, including treaties and customary international law, protects the rights of women and girls. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights all recognize the rights of women and girls and guarantee their equality, protection, and individual dignity. Many of the rights recognized in these treaties are more protective than their domestic counterparts, yet, to date, the United States has failed to ratify them.

Treaty Ratification

The United States has played a critical role in drafting numerous international treaties and documents on human rights. However, it has ratified or is otherwise bound to only a handful of treaties in their entirety.


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