On Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, ACLU Sees America's Reputation as Human Rights Leader Diminished

August 29, 2006 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — One year after the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina, government investigations into the failure to aid the storm’s victims — mainly poor, black and disenfranchised — are lagging, and America’s reputation as a human rights leader has been further diminished, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.

“As horrific as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was, it was the government’s indifference to the suffering of the poor and people of color that truly shocked our nation and the world,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “There is no question that the administration’s response to Katrina, added to its other abuses of power, has further diminished America’s reputation as a beacon of freedom.”

Many of the horrors of the storm have gone untold, the ACLU said, because its victims were viewed by society as second-class citizens. In a comprehensive, book-length report released earlier this month, the ACLU documented the experience of prisoners and guards at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in Louisiana, many of whom were trapped in flooded cells with no food or water and little ventilation.

Those who were transported from the flooded prison after the storm encountered chaotic and dehumanizing conditions at the temporary holding facilities. According to the report, non-violent offenders and people who were picked up on traffic violations were locked in a field with violent maximum-security prisoners. One 53-year-old man held on a parole violation reported that guards threw bags of sandwiches into the crowd so that the prisoners had to fight for food. The deputies were “just looking and laughing,” said the man, “They were throwing sandwiches in the crowd like they were in New Orleans at the Mardi Gras.”

One year later, state officials continue to deny the extent of the disaster at the prison and in surrounding areas and refuse to disclose key documents, while the Department of Justice and other federal agencies have yet to investigate the events at the prison or audit the jail’s emergency preparedness plans. The ACLU report, Abandoned & Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina, is online at www.aclu.org/prison/conditions/26198res20060809.html

The ACLU has made efforts to hold the U.S. government accountable for its human rights obligations under internationally recognized norms and treaties to which it is bound. In June, an ACLU delegation traveled to Geneva to advocate before the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC), a group of experts who monitor compliance with the primary global human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The ACLU delegation included human rights advocates and victims of human rights abuses in the United States. Along with the U.S. Human Rights Network, the ACLU convened a panel of human rights victims, which included victims of Hurricane Katrina, who were able to tell their stories to Committee members and to the global community. The HRC also asked questions of high-level representatives from the U.S. government and subsequently issued a sharp criticism of the Bush Administration’s response to the victims, noting the disadvantages suffered by poor people and African Americans in rescue operations after Hurricane Katrina and in reconstruction efforts.

The ACLU also submitted a report to the committee, Dimming the Beacon of Freedom: U.S. Violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which included a discussion of the Katrina response. (See www.aclu.org/intlhumanrights/gen/26268prs20060728.html)

In the wake of last year’s storms, the ACLU and its affiliates have conducted fact-finding tours in the affected Gulf Coast states and they are working with other advocates to ensure that civil liberties and human rights concerns are addressed, including those related to housing, education, voting and racial profiling.

For example, in Mississippi, the ACLU is representing displaced students from New Orleans who were singled out for harsh discipline by officials at a local high school. The ACLU of Mississippi also helped to stop the eviction of Katrina refugees and is battling dragnet drug sweeps of FEMA camps.

In Louisiana, the ACLU has filed numerous official requests regarding the evacuation of prisoners during the storm and has called for an end to racial profiling and disparate treatment of Katrina refugees. An extensive voting rights initiative helped thousands of displaced persons from Orleans Parish gain access to the ballot box during recent elections. Also, the ACLU of Louisiana made a major contribution to the report on the Orleans Parish Prison and is currently considering litigation over problems that were brought to light in the report.

At a news conference in Mississippi today commemorating the Katrina anniversary, ACLU human rights attorney Chandra Bhatnagar said, “We are here today to cast a global spotlight on the U.S. government’s poor human rights record in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We are here to demand accountability from local, state and federal government, all of whom are obligated to protect and defend human rights. We are here to deliver one simple message loud and clear, human rights begin at home.”

For more information on the ACLU’s response to Hurricane Katrina, go to www.aclu.org/hurricanerelief

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