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Protecting the Dignity of All Persons

Tom Jawetz,
National Prison Project
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December 8, 2008

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) starts with a simple premise: all members of the human family possess inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights. From that modest beginning, the UDHR’s protections grow. All persons have a right to life and to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The family unit is entitled to special protection from the State because of its fundamental place in society, and everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. Much like our own Constitution, which guarantees due process for all “persons”—not just United States citizens—the UDHR makes no distinction based on alienage.

That’s a good thing, because each year more than 300,000 people are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On any given day, there are approximately 33,000 people in ICE detention, including asylum-seekers, torture survivors, and families with young children. As the detention population has skyrocketed, so has public awareness of the grossly deficient conditions in which many of these people are held. Through litigation and advocacy, the ACLU has fought to defend the human rights of immigration detainees. At the San Diego Correctional Facility, hundreds of detainees lived for weeks or months in dangerously overcrowded conditions, many sleeping on the floor with their heads lying just below the toilet. In Texas, immigrant children still are held in a former medium-security prison operated by a for-profit prison company, but conditions at the facility steadily improved following litigation and public outrage; initially, children as young as three wore prison uniforms and received little access to education or exercise. By carefully documenting instances of serious medical neglect, we have helped to identify system-wide failures that lead to preventable in-custody suffering, and sometimes death.

The United States was a major force in the creation of the UDHR, a set of principles that underscore our common humanity. And the country that pushed for the adoption of the UDHR would demand nothing less than accountability from all nations, including our own, that fall short of the declaration’s protections.

Celebrate the UDHR at 60 with the ACLU. Visit and sign the ACLU’s petition calling on the government and newly elected president to recommit to the UDHR. On December 10, the ACLU’s efforts will culminate in the online launch of an exclusive publication about the importance of the UDHR.

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