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We've Come So Far, But Have So Much Farther to Go

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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October 13, 2009

The U.S. is the world’s leading incarcerator with over 2.3 million people – or 1 in 99 adults – in prisons and jails across the country. Our incarceration rate of 760 per 100,000 people is the highest in the world — five to ten times that of other Western democracies. In addition, because of increased reliance on detention as an immigration enforcement strategy, the number of immigrant detainees has tripled in the last ten years.

Massive incarceration in the U.S. undoubtedly causes much human suffering and, when coupled with overcrowding, mistreatment of vulnerable populations and other threatening conditions of confinement, greatly hinders the rehabilitation and reformation of those detained. For those in supermax prisons, extreme social isolation, sensory deprivation and other cruel forms of treatment or punishment also threaten their basic rights.

When U.S. law falls flat, lawyers and advocates often look to international law to protect the rights of detainees. Last week, in front of a large audience at Columbia Law School, human rights lawyers and advocates gathered to discuss the importance of a human rights framework.

Sir Nigel Rodley, human rights expert and author of The Treatment of Prisoners Under International Law, described his research and work on behalf of those in detention. He discussed how much the landscape had changed since he began to study the rights of people in detention, and the dramatic breakthroughs he’s seen in the human rights field to address violations. Today, there are better norms and mechanisms available to monitor and address abuses, and the protections afforded in international human rights law often surpass protections available under U.S. law.

Speakers noted that there were many moments when they looked to the human rights framework because the Constitution didn’t provide enough specific protections, using international human rights law to reinforce core American values. The panelists pointed out that human rights law (especially the rights outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] and the Convention against Torture) can be a much more powerful tool to address prison conditions and rights violations. For example, if you take a close look at the ICCPR, it clearly states that incarcerated juveniles must be kept separate from adults, and that the aim of detention shall be rehabilitation. As the ACLU learned when it investigated the conditions of girls in confinement in juvenile detention facilities in New York, this was always not the case.

The speakers from last week’s panel also brought up how the U.S.’ deviations from international human rights law have had serious ramifications around the world. Specifically, in the war on terror, U.S. actions have discredited us as a worldwide human rights leader and put us in the company of countries that routinely abuse human rights. Torture, secret detention, rendition, disappearances and holding people incommunicado threatened not only our security and safety but our standing in the world.

Sir Nigel summarized the mood of the entire panel when he noted, “We’ve come so far, but we have so much farther to go.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Watch this space for video of the event!

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