Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Signed by the United States and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948.
The Declaration's first article reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Someone born into one of the 57 percent of U.S. households with less than $1,000 in savings will not enjoy remotely the same amount of “dignity and rights” as those enjoyed by someone born into the top 1 percent of households, which together possess as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of U.S. Citizens.
Access to basic means of comfort, dignity and freedom—like quality housing, quality education, strong legal representation, leisure, travel, health care, quality food and recreation—is filtered by the militantly disparate distribution of wealth and income in the U.S., one of the most unequal nation among all Western economies. America's’s extreme socioeconomic imbalance is inconsistent with calls for conscience and brotherhood.
Article 2 proclaims, among other things, that everyone is entitled to human rights and freedoms without distinctions of “race, color” and “national or social origin.” yet median white wealth is 12 times higher than median black wealth in the U.S.—a reflection of persistent anti-black discrimination and segregation built into the nation’s social structures and institutions.
Reflecting stark racial disparities in arrest, prosecution, legal representation and sentencing, black and Latinos make up 56 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million incarcerated people though they comprise roughly 32 percent of the U.S. population. One in three adult black males is saddled with the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record—a critical barrier to opportunity and full citizenship (even the right to vote in many U.S. states) on numerous levels.
Thanks to the racially disparate waging of the so-called war on drugs, one of every 10 U.S. black men in their 30s is in jail or prison on any given day. African-Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African-Americans for drug charges is almost six times that of whites.
Millions of undocumented immigrant workers and residents are unwilling to fight for their “universal human rights” in the U.S. because they reasonably fear arrest and deportation.
The fourth article declares, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.” However, hundreds of thousands of U.S. prisoners—the modern-day and very disproportionately non-white human chattel that provides the essential raw material for the self-declared “Land of Freedom’s” curiously gigantic prison-industrial complex—perform labor tasks for tiny levels of compensation and often for no payment at all.
The Global Slavery Index estimates that 57,000 people are victims of human trafficking, the modern form of slavery, with illegal smuggling and trading of people, for forced labor or sexual exploitation, in the United States.
Hundreds of millions of nominally free Americans are wage-slaves and serfs to employers
The Universal Declaration’s fifth article says, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Torture and such treatment is endemic across the United States’ vast prison system, the largest in world history. One particularly widespread and egregious form of cruel and inhuman treatment inside that system is solitary confinement—a punishment well known to cause grave damage to its victims’ mental and physical health. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that:
Over the last two decades, the use of solitary confinement in U.S. correctional facilities has surged … 44 states and the federal government have supermax units, where prisoners are held in extreme isolation, often for years or even decades. On any given day in this country, it’s estimated that over 80,000 prisoners are held in isolated confinement. This massive increase in the use of solitary has happened despite criticism from legal and medical professionals, who have deemed the practice unconstitutional and inhumane.
Other forms of torture and cruel and inhumane treatment that are commonin the nation’s vast archipelago of racially disparate mass incarceration include widespread beatings, rape, ignoring cries for help, overcrowding, underfunding, forcing inmates to fight, dehydration, starvation, denial of medical care, executions (including botched executions) and forced scalding showers.
Article 7 of the UD states, “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.”
This principle, too, is brazenly violated in the purported homeland and headquarters of global freedom and democracy. Many Americans are familiar with the old working-class aphorism that “money talks and bullshit walks”—meaning that the wealthy few hire high-priced lawyers to enhance their chances and power in the courts while everyday people do far less well with fewer resources to pay for legal representation. It’s no joke. As the Georgia gubernatorial candidate and former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams noted last February, people with money “artfully navigate the criminal justice system and maybe even avoid it altogether,” but those who are poor are overwhelmed.
Wall Street bosses who threw millions of Americans out of work and destroyed billions of dollars in lost savings through their reckless and often criminal practices have escaped prosecution while the nation’s jails and prisons are loaded with disproportionately black, Latino and poor people serving long terms for comparative small-time drug offenses. Hundreds of thousands of Americans rot in jail prior to conviction for the simple reason that they lack the financial resources to “make bail.” Abrams reports, “The majority of Georgians incarcerated in local jails have never been convicted of crime. They are simply too poor to pay their bail.”
The UD’s ninth and 10th articles say that “..no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” and “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” The 11th article says, “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”
The “land of freedom” contravenes these core civil-libertarian principles without the slightest hint of embarrassment. The U.S. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorizes the indefinite military detention, without charge or trial, of any person labeled a “belligerent”—including an American citizen. The legislation overrides habeas corpus, the critical legal procedure that prevents the government from detaining you indefinitely without showing just cause.
In addition, the federal government has used the post 9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) law to justify the direct killing (without a trial or verdict) of anyone proclaimed an “enemy combatant” in the global war on terrorism. The AUMF is unbound by geographic or time limitations. U.S. citizens are not exempted, nor is U.S. territory.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported last January, “For the third year in a row, [U.S. local and state] police nationwide shot and killed nearly 1,000 people. …” Police killings, disproportionately inflicted against poor people and people of color, amount to executions, without trial or verdict.
The presumption of innocence does not prevent hundreds of thousands of American from experiencing the torture of incarceration simply because they cannot pay bail while awaiting trial.
The UD’s 12th article proclaims, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.” So what? Americans are subject to a vast private and public surveillance apparatus that has essentially abolished privacy in the name of “national security.” As the ACLU reports:
Numerous government agencies—including the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and state and local law enforcement agencies—intrude upon the private communications of innocent citizens, amass vast databases of who we call and when, and catalog “suspicious activities” based on the vaguest standards. … Innocuous data is fed into bloated watchlists, with severe consequences—innocent individuals have found themselves unable to board planes, barred from certain types of jobs, shut out of their bank accounts, and repeatedly questioned by authorities. Once information is in the government’s hands, it can be shared widely and retained for years, and the rules about access and use can be changed entirely in secret without the public ever knowing.
Article 15 of the UD says, “Everyone has the right to a nationality” and “No one shall be deprived of the right to change his nationality.” Millions of “illegal” immigrants in flight from impoverished and repressive regimes supported by the United States are stateless people, too afraid of deportation to declare their foreign citizenship or to fight for decent conditions inside the U.S. They are not free to change their nationality by becoming U.S. citizens.
The UD’s 19th article declares, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference.” That’s nice. Millions of U.S. citizen-subjects know very well that they cannot write or say (or sing or post or march on behalf of) what they believe without putting their livelihoods at risk by offending or otherwise concerning their employers and other authorities. And in the United States, where health insurance is strongly and absurdly tied to place of employment, putting one’s job at risk also endangers a person’s and his or her family’s access to health care.
Freedom of expression is strictly qualified, to say the least, in the hidden and despotic abode of the capitalist workplace, where most working-age Americans spend most of their waking hours under managerial supervision.
Even tenured academics can be fired for expressing their opinions. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fired tenured professor Steven Salaita over his personal tweets criticizing Israel’s mass-murderous 2014 assault on Gaza. The prolific radical Native American author Ward Churchill was stripped of his tenured professorship on trumped-up grounds because of political comments he made on the 9/11 terror attacks.
Article 20 of the UD says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
These rights are strictly qualified in the U.S., where public assembly is controlled by onerous permitting processes and fees and peaceful protest gatherings commonly face militarized police forces that make random arrests, infiltrate marches and meetings, target organizers, give protesters petty charges (and deadly criminal records) and rough-up protesters. Numerous Republican-controlled states have passed bills that increase penalties for public protest in the wake of the many protests that accompanied Donald Trump’s election and inauguration.
Workers are fired for trying to organize unions in the U.S., where once union-friendly labor laws have been eviscerated.
The UD’s 21st article proclaims that “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
The reality of U.S. politics and policy stands in brazen defiance of this universal human right. As the distinguished liberal political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern) and Marin Gilens (Princeton) showed in their expertly researched book, “Democracy in America?” last year:
[T]he best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have little or no impact on the making of federal government policy. Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups—especially business corporations—have had much more political clout. When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless. … The will of majorities is often thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves. … Majorities of Americans favor … programs to help provide jobs, increase wages, help the unemployed, provide universal medical insurance, ensure decent retirement pensions, and pay for such programs with progressive taxes. Most Americans also want to cut “corporate welfare.” Yet the wealthy, business groups, and structural gridlock have mostly blocked such new policies [and programs].
“Elections alone,” Page and Gilens note, “do not guarantee democracy.” Majority U.S. opinion is regularly trumped by a deadly complex of forces in the nation’s politics, including: