The administration of United States President Joe Biden and the US Congress took positive steps on human rights by championing the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people that had been weakened under the previous administration, committing to racial equity, and taking action to address the Covid-19 pandemic and its harmful economic impacts.
However, the United States continues to fail to fulfill its human rights commitments, most notably in the area of racial justice as reflected in the country’s failure to end systemic racism linked to the legacies of slavery; abusive structures of incarceration, immigration enforcement, and social control affecting many racial and ethnic minorities; and the Black-white wealth gap that persists alongside an overall slight increase in economic inequality.
Black, Latinx, and Native communities have been disproportionately burdened by the negative impacts of Covid-19, which has deepened existing racial injustices in healthcare, housing, employment, education, and wealth accumulation. While poverty fell overall due to stimulus checks and unemployment aid, the Black-white wealth gap, which is still as big as it was in 1968, persisted.
Across the country, state and local authorities launched reparations efforts seeking to repair harms that are evident in current racial disparities and connected to the legacies of slavery. In April, the US House Judiciary Committee voted H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, out of subcommittee and on to consideration by the full house for the first time in the bill’s 32-year history.
In May, Human Rights Watch testified alongside survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre about the failure of city and state authorities in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to provide comprehensive reparations ahead of the race massacre’s centennial. Following the Centennial in June, the Tulsa City Council passed an apology resolution but failed to address the city’s documented culpability in the massacre or provide full and effective reparations.
Poverty and Inequality
Economic inequality remains high and has slightly increased in the United States, with wealth disparities rising faster than inequality in income. The total combined wealth of US billionaires increased from $2.9 trillion in March 2020 to $4.7 trillion in July 2021. According to US government sources, poverty dropped and hardship indicators improved since December 2020, aided primarily by government benefits.
The American Rescue Plan, enacted on March 11, which built on earlier direct payments by the administration of former President Donald Trump, included $1,400 payments for most adults in the US alongside other assistance to struggling households. Food hardship among adults with children also fell after the federal government began monthly payments under the expanded Child Tax Credit on July 15, along with improved food assistance. Federal and state eviction moratoriums protected millions of tenants during the pandemic.
Still, Census Bureau data show that in September 2021 some 19 million adults were living in households with insufficient food, 11.9 million adults were behind on rent, and some of the progress from late March had stalled as relief measures were reduced in legislative negotiations. The impacts of the pandemic and the economic fallout have been widespread, but remain particularly prevalent among Black adults, Latino adults, and other people of color.
Criminal Legal System
The US continues to report the world’s highest criminal incarceration rates, with nearly 2 million people held in state and federal jails and prisons on any given day and millions more on parole and probation. Despite some reductions in incarceration rates for Black people, they remain vastly overrepresented in jails and prisons. Following a trend starting in 2009, prison populations have decreased steadily, without substantially dismantling the mass incarceration system.
Prisons have often failed to provide sufficient protection against Covid-19 infection. One-third of all people in US prisons have contracted the virus and over 2,700 have died from it. Many jurisdictions reduced incarceration in response to the pandemic, but detained populations began returning to their pre-pandemic numbers in 2021 even as Delta variant cases surged.
Despite widespread calls for systemic reform during the summer of 2020, especially to reduce overreliance on policing and address societal problems with investment in supportive services, few jurisdictions have enacted meaningful measures. Some localities have made efforts to deploy mental health care professionals instead of police in appropriate circumstances; some have funded non-law enforcement violence interrupters. However, police budgets overall have not shrunk. Congress has not passed even the weak reforms proposed in the federal Justice in Policing Act.
Most US police departments refuse to report data on their use of force, necessitating nongovernmental data collection and analysis. As of November 3, police had killed over 900 people in 2021, similar to numbers in years past. On a per-capita basis, police kill Black people at three times the rate they kill white people.
Children in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Systems
Despite declines in the number of youth incarcerated, racial and ethnic disparities continue. The Sentencing Project reports that Black youth are more than four times, Latinx youth 1.3 times, and tribal youth more than three times as likely to be incarcerated as white youth.
Nearly two in three youth ordered into residential placement were placed in the most restrictive facilities.
Slow progress is being made to end the sentence of life without parole for children. According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, 30 states have no one serving the sentence or have banned it for people under age 18.
Drug overdose deaths reached the highest number ever recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 93,000 people died in 2020 from a drug overdose death—a 30 percent increase compared to 2019.
These overdose deaths are part of an increase in mortality associated with unemployment, alcohol poisoning, and suicide, circumstances related to economic insecurity, and mental health challenges. A Rhode Island study found increased overdose deaths among people experiencing job loss and in subgroups with mental health diagnoses in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic compared to 2019.
US drug laws prioritizing criminalization do not address the root causes of overdoses and have had devastating impacts in Black and brown communities. This continued focus on criminalization in such laws continues to be an obstacle to life-saving harm reduction services in many states, and gaps remain inaccessible, affordable evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders.
Rights of Non-Citizens
Despite promises made during the presidential campaign, the Biden administration kept in place Trump-era policies denying access to asylum at US borders. At the time of writing, the administration had carried out 753,038 expulsions under Title 42, an illegal policy to expel migrants arriving at land borders based on specious public health grounds.
Title 42 expulsions single out migrants arriving at land borders—who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and Latino, particularly from Central America, Africa, and Haiti—for discriminatory treatment, while thousands of other travelers are able to cross the border without any health screening. Expulsions under Title 42 put migrants in harm’s way with thousands suffering kidnapping, rape, assault, extortion, and other abuse after expulsion to Mexico alone. In September, the government showed total disregard for the right to seek asylum when immigration agents on horseback used long reins as whips to control and deter a group of about 15,000 largely Black Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas.
Throughout 2021, the Biden administration sent a series of expulsion flights to Haiti, exposing approximately 10,000 migrants to conditions the US government currently recognizes as being too dangerous for safe returns of Haitians already present inside the US.
In October, Human Rights Watch reported on Department of Homeland Security documents cataloging over 160 internal reports of US border officials physically or otherwise abusing asylum seekers and subjecting them to due process violations.
Before a federal court blocked the Biden administration’s termination of the Trump-era Migration Protection Protocols, commonly known as “Remain in Mexico,” about 13,000 of the 70,000 people returned to Mexico had been allowed to enter the United States to pursue their asylum claims. The administration’s diplomatic pressure on Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to stop migrant flows resulted in serious abuses against migrants due to US policies, but far from US borders.
After detention levels reached historic lows due to releases prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Biden administration dramatically increased the number of people detained for immigration reasons and also increased the number placed on electronic monitors, which facilitates invasive surveillance.
According to data current through August 2021, the United States decided over 18,000 asylum cases in the fiscal year 2021 (which ended on September 30), of which 63 percent were denied asylum, 36 percent were granted asylum, and 1 percent were granted a different legal status. Despite the administration’s decision to raise the limit to 62,500, only 11,445 refugees were admitted to the US during the fiscal year 2021.
Health and Human Rights
The US government failed to curb the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19 and by September 2021, the pandemic had become the deadliest infectious disease event in the country’s history, tallying 676,000 deaths, 94 percent of which were of people over the age of 50 and including at least 3,600 healthcare workers, most of whom were people of color. Structural racism impacted people’s experiences of the pandemic, with Black and brown people more likely to suffer severe illness and die from Covid-19, as well as face additional barriers to vaccines. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a serious threat to public health.
Schools in some areas were closed for an entire school year, if not longer, impacting nearly 78 million students. Students of color were particularly adversely impacted as they tend to attend less well-resourced schools and have more limited access to the internet for remote schooling. Meanwhile, unregulated drug prices in the US have contributed to a crisis of affordability for essential medicines. And despite positive court rulings, Indigenous communities in the United States continue to face significant barriers to accessing adequate health services.
The country grappled with baseless accusations of mass election fraud, ongoing suppression, disenfranchisement of voters of color, and efforts to undermine election procedures set up to ensure everyone eligible can easily vote in US elections. After comprehensive voting rights legislation failed to pass the US Senate in June, a compromise bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, was introduced in September. Also pending was the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, intended to update and restore the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Climate Change Policy and Impacts
Historically, the United States is by far the country that has most contributed to the climate crisis that is taking a mounting toll on human rights around the globe and remains amongst the world’s top emitters.
President Biden announced he would prioritize addressing climate change, and rejoined the Paris Agreement on his first day in office. However, the United States’ emissions reduction target in its national climate plan, is not sufficient to meet the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, according to the Climate Action Tracker. If all countries’ commitments were in the same range, warming would reach just under 2°C, risking catastrophic human rights harms. Further, although the Biden administration has taken significant steps to reduce emissions, the United States is not on track to reach its target.
Heatwaves, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events linked to climate disproportionately impact marginalized populations in the United States. Authorities have not adequately protected at-risk populations—including pregnant people, people with disabilities, and older people—from such foreseeable impacts.
Women’s and Girls’ Health and Rights
Lack of access to health insurance and care contributed to higher rates of maternal and cervical cancer deaths than in comparable countries, with Black women dying at higher rates. President Biden issued a presidential memorandum on protecting women’s health on January 28, rescinding actions by the Trump administration that created difficulties for women to speak freely with doctors, access health services, and get health information.
On March 8, Biden issued an executive order establishing the White House Gender Policy Council tasked with increasing access to comprehensive health care, addressing health disparities, and promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights, among other goals. On October 22, 2021, it issued a national strategy on gender equity and equality.
States continue to pass increasingly extreme abortion restrictions. Harmful laws in the majority of US states force young people under 18 to involve a parent in their abortion decision or go to court to receive a judicial bypass. These laws can delay or prevent access to care. access to care.
In September, a new law in Texas effectively prohibited nearly all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before most people know they are pregnant, with no exception for rape or incest. At the time of writing, the law remained in place after the Supreme Court declined to block the law in response to an emergency application; a second challenge was pending before the court.
At the time of writing, the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case concerning a Mississippi abortion restriction that could have significant implications for abortion rights in the United States. A decision is expected in 2022.
As abortion access in some states became more restrictive, the Food and Drug Administration issued permission in April for mifepristone, a drug used in medical abortions, to be prescribed and administered by mail through the duration of the pandemic.
Police violence against Black and Latinx people with disabilities (especially people with mental health conditions, but not exclusively) continued in 2021, partly due to a lack of community-based support services for mental health crises. Illinois and California passed legislation to address the growing concern.
Older People’s Rights
As of September, approximately one-third of Covid-19 deaths were in long-term residential facilities. There were also serious concerns about abuse and neglect in nursing homes during the pandemic. Staffing shortages, a longstanding issue, and limits on family visitors, who often assisted staff, may have contributed to neglect and decline. In June, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services undid a Trump administration rule that restricted monetary fines for certain nursing home violations. Congress considered bills to enhance nursing home accountability, address elder abuse, expand home and community-based services, and improve direct care workers’ wages and benefits.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The Biden administration took swift steps to restore rights limited by the Trump administration, instructing federal agencies to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The administration also issued a memorandum to advance the human rights of LGBTI people in US foreign policy and reversed the discriminatory transgender military ban.
Lawmakers in US states introduced more than 110 bills targeting transgender people, particularly transgender children, threatening their health and rights. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia enacted laws prohibiting trans children from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. Arkansas and Tennessee enacted laws preventing children and adolescents from obtaining gender-affirming healthcare.
The Senate did not pass the Equality Act, which would expressly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity under various federal civil rights laws.
On January 6, armed rioters encouraged by then-President Trump broke into the US Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the certification of vote counts for the presidential election. Five people died and more than 600 people have been charged in the attack. The rioters included white supremacists and anti-government militia members and demonstrated that the extreme-right remains a major domestic security threat.
The Biden administration announced it would review the legal and policy frameworks governing lethal targeting of terrorism suspects abroad, but that review has not been made public. On August 29, two days after the Kabul airport suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISIS-K or ISKP) that killed at least 170 Afghans and 13 US service members, the US launched a drone strike on a car it claimed was filled with explosives headed to the airport. On September 17, the Defense Department admitted the strike was a “tragic mistake,” killing 10 civilians including seven children. Following an investigation, the US concluded that there was no “criminal negligence among military personnel” involved in the operation. The US announced it would provide “ex gratia condolence payments” to the victims’ families.
President Biden pledged to end detention at Guantanamo Bay but the US released only one detainee in 2021. Thirty-nine men remain detained at the time of writing: 10 were being prosecuted by military commission and two were serving sentences. While some pretrial hearings before Guantanamo’s flawed military commissions resumed in September after extensive delays, no trials are expected until 2022, including for the five alleged September 11 plotters.
Upon taking office, the Biden administration announced that it was committed to a foreign policy “that is centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights,” as well as to increasing multilateral cooperation. The United States was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council and rejoined the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris Climate Accord.
In April 2021, President Biden lifted sanctions against senior International Criminal Court (ICC) officials but opposed ICC investigations that could include scrutiny of the conduct of US and Israeli nationals. The US hosted a Summit for Democracy intended to spur commitments by invited countries on human rights, anti-corruption, and anti-authoritarianism.
The Biden administration revoked the Protecting Life in Global Health Policy, also known as the “Global Gag Rule,” which damaged sexual and reproductive health and rights globally. It also committed to restoring consideration of reproductive health and rights to its annual global human rights report.
A US Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons was appointed, a vacant position since 2017. Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected the findings of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights—a Trump administration initiative advocating for a hierarchical approach to human rights—noting that human rights are “interdependent” and cannot be ranked.
While the Biden administration adopted the Trump administration’s determination of genocide and crimes against humanity by China’s government for its treatment of Uyghurs, it did not announce a legal determination on military abuses against the Rohingya in Myanmar or on abuses committed in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The United States urged the UN Security Council to discuss the humanitarian and rights crises in Myanmar and Tigray, but at the time of writing had not called on the council to impose an arms embargo or individual UN sanctions on those responsible for abuses.
The United States pursued sanctions on a range of human rights violations. In response to China’s use of forced labor and other abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Biden administration issued an advisory warning that US companies conducting business in the region run a “high risk of violating US law.” The administration imposed sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials and companies over the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. On Myanmar, the administration imposed sanctions on the junta following the February coup. The US took similar action against Belarus, Cuba, and Nicaragua in response to increasingly authoritarian governance and rights violations. President Biden also issued an executive order allowing for US sanctions against individuals committing abuses in the Ethiopia conflict and terminated Ethiopia’s trade status under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) due to human rights violations.
The Biden administration did not impose sanctions on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the release of a US intelligence report that concluded that he approved the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In July, President Biden launched a US strategy to address the root causes of migration in Central America, including promoting respect for human rights. The impact of this strategy has been limited.
President Biden announced a full US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan without ensuring that Afghans accepted under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program and others at risk would be evacuated and resettled. On August 15, the Taliban completed a rapid takeover of Afghanistan and the US-backed government, creating chaotic and dangerous conditions for Afghans fearing Taliban retribution. The US evacuated over 60,000 Afghans, many of whom had worked directly with the US government or US organizations, but thousands of human rights defenders, journalists, and others left behind remained at risk. The legal status abroad of many other evacuated Afghans remained unclear. The US also evacuated thousands of Afghans who had worked for CIA-backed strike forces, including some accused of summary executions and other abuses.
The Biden administration pursued arms sales and security assistance to countries with poor human rights records. Though the United States pledged to end offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE due to their role in the war in Yemen, it pursued arms deals with both governments. The Biden administration authorized over $2.5 billion in arms sales to the Philippines and requested $1.3 billion in security assistance to Egypt despite deteriorating human rights in both countries. President Biden also skirted congressional legislation that requires $300 million of US security assistance to Egypt to be conditioned on human rights, withholding only $130 million despite ongoing abuses.
The United States funded an additional $735 million in arms sales to Israel over the annual $3.8 billion commitment, even as Israeli forces used US-made weapons in May airstrikes in Gaza that violated the laws of war and apparently amount to war crimes.
The Biden administration stated its willingness to return to compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action if Iran does the same. At the time of writing, the US and Iran had agreed to resume multilateral talks at the end of November. Broad US sanctions on Iran remain in place.