The Trump administration’s broadly dismal human rights record, both at home and abroad, deteriorated further during 2020. The USA experienced massive demonstrations across the country with the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, contested 2020 general elections and a widespread racist backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. In response to thousands of public demonstrations against institutional racism and police violence, law enforcement authorities routinely used excessive force against protesters and human rights defenders and failed to constrain violent counter-protests against primarily peaceful assemblies. The administration also sought to undermine international human rights protections for women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people; and victims of war crimes, among others. It also exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to target migrants and asylum-seekers for further abuses. Joe Biden was declared the winner of the November presidential election.
Despite confirmation by the Electoral College that Joe Biden had won the November presidential election, President Trump continued to challenge the result, making repeated unsubstantiated claims of electoral irregularities. These continued allegations sparked a number of pro-Trump protests and raised concerns about the peaceful transfer of power in January.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated long-standing inequalities in the USA. Inadequate and uneven government responses to the pandemic had a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on many people based on their race, socioeconomic situations and other characteristics. Systemic disparities dictated who served as frontline workers and who had employment and economic security and access to housing and health care.1
Incarcerated people were particularly at risk due to insanitary conditions in prisons and detention where they were unable to adequately physically distance and had inadequate access to hygienic supplies as facilities became hotspots for infection.
Additionally, racially discriminatory political speech and violence risked increasing the number of hate crimes.
Workers in health care, law enforcement, transportation and other “essential” sectors faced enormous challenges as the US government failed to adequately protect them during the pandemic. Shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) meant that health and other essential workers often had to perform their jobs without adequate protection and in unsafe environments. In April, the National Nurses Union held a physically distanced protest in front of the White House against the lack of PPE for health workers. From March to December 2020, more than 2,900 health care workers died amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledged that available figures were likely underestimates.
Some health and other essential workers in the public and private sectors also faced reprisals, including harassment, disciplinary procedures and unfair dismissal, if they spoke out about the inadequate protective measures.
At least 1,000 people were reportedly killed by police using firearms. The limited public data available suggests that Black people are disproportionately impacted by police use of lethal force. The US government’s programme to track how many such deaths occur annually was not fully implemented. No state laws governing the use of lethal force by police – where such laws exist – comply with international law and standards regarding the use of lethal force by law enforcement officials.2
Law enforcement across the USA committed widespread and egregious human rights violations against people protesting about the unlawful killings of Black people and calling for police reform. Amnesty International documented 125 separate incidents of unlawful police violence against protesters in 40 states and Washington, D.C., between 26 May and 5 June alone.3 Thousands more protests took place in the remainder of the year.
Violations were committed by law enforcement personnel at the municipal, county, state and federal levels, including by National Guard troops who were deployed by the federal government in some cities. The violence included beatings with batons or other devices, the misuse of tear gas and pepper spray, and the inappropriate and indiscriminate firing of “less lethal” projectiles.
In numerous incidents, human rights defenders – including protest organizers, media representatives, legal observers and street medics – were specifically targeted with chemical irritants and kinetic impact projectiles, arrested and detained, seemingly on account of their work documenting and remedying law enforcement agencies’ human rights abuses.
The government’s ongoing failure to protect individuals from persistent gun violence continued to violate their human rights, including the right to life, security of the person and freedom from discrimination, among others. Unfettered access to firearms, a lack of comprehensive gun safety laws (including effective regulation of firearm acquisition, possession and use) and a failure to invest in adequate gun violence prevention and intervention programmes continued to perpetuate this violence.
In 2018, the most recent year for which data was available, some 39,740 individuals died from gunshot injuries while tens of thousands more are estimated to have sustained gunshot injuries and survived. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with increased gun sales and shootings, the USA failed in its obligation to prevent deaths from gun violence, which could have been done through a range of urgent measures, including de-listing gun stores as essential businesses.
As of 2020, expansive “Stand Your Ground” and “Castle Doctrine” laws, both of which provide for private individuals to use lethal force in self-defence against others when in their homes or feeling threatened, existed in 34 US states. These laws appeared to escalate gun violence and the risk of avoidable deaths or serious injuries, resulting in violations of the right to life.
As protesters against the killing of Black people took to the streets in cities across the USA, there were instances where armed civilians in states where the open carrying of firearms is permitted engaged protesters, causing at least four deaths.
Despite a serious outbreak of COVID-19 in civil immigration detention facilities, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) refused to release tens of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers, over 8,000 of whom contracted the virus in detention.
Contrary to guidance from the CDC, ICE failed to adequately provide soap and sanitizer or introduce physical distancing, and continued to transfer thousands of people unnecessarily between immigration detention facilities.4 This included approximately 100 families held in detention centres that a US federal judge deemed “on fire” because of confirmed COVID-19 cases and inadequate protection. Instead of releasing families together, ICE asked parents in May if they would agree to release their children without them, while the parents remained detained.
Simultaneously, the US government exploited the COVID-19 crisis to halt all processing of asylum-seekers on the US-Mexico border and to deny access to asylum procedures to those who crossed into the USA irregularly. Instead, the authorities unlawfully detained and “expelled” over 330,000 migrants and asylum-seekers between March and November – including over 13,000 unaccompanied children – without consideration of their protection needs or the risks of persecution, death, torture or other ill-treatment that they faced upon refoulement to their countries of origin.5 In hundreds of documented cases, these returnees had contracted COVID-19 in US custody due to the negligence of authorities and contributed to the regional outbreak of the pandemic throughout the Americas.
The resettlement of refugees in the USA plummeted further. Refugee admissions for the fiscal year 2020 were set at 18,000, the lowest in the programme’s history, while approximately half that number were actually resettled during 2020.
The authorities failed to adopt any accountability measures to remedy misuse of the law to harass migrant human rights defenders in 2018 and 2019. In a step backward, in June the US Supreme Court vacated a 2018 federal appellate court decision that found unconstitutional a key criminal statute that the government had used to target migrant human rights defenders for unlawful surveillance, instead remanding the decision to be reconsidered at the appellate level.
Indigenous women continued to experience disproportionately high levels of rape and sexual violence and lacked access to basic post-rape care. In 2019, President Trump issued an Executive Order forming the Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. As of December, the Task Force had opened seven cold case offices to investigate cases, but the exact number of victims remained unknown as the US government did not collect data or adequately coordinate with Tribal governments.
The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns significantly impacted domestic and intimate partner violence across the country, in some cases leading to increases in reported incidents or the severity of injuries.
The exponential increase in purchases of firearms during the pandemic increased the risks of gun violence for children and domestic violence survivors as more unsecured firearms were located in homes where people were forced to quarantine with their abusers.6
According to official data released in 2020, incidents of hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity remained high in 2019 for a fifth consecutive year. Trans women of colour were especially targeted for violent hate crimes and killings.
The administration sought through policy and the courts to continue to dismantle protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in education, the military, employment and other areas of federal government.
Federal and state governments intensified efforts to curtail sexual and reproductive rights by seeking to criminalize abortion and limit access to reproductive health services.7 The administration also sought to amend US foreign policy and development policy to end support for the protection of sexual and reproductive rights at the international level.
A decade after dozens of detainees were held in a CIA-operated secret detention programme – authorized from 2001 to 2009 – during which systematic human rights violations were committed, including enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment, no person suspected of criminal responsibility had been brought to justice for these crimes. The limited investigations conducted into those crimes were closed without charges being brought against anyone.
In March, Colorado became the 22nd US state to abolish the death penalty.
Six people were exonerated from death row, bringing the total of such exonerations since 1977 to 173. Among those released was Curtis Flowers, who endured six trials and 23 years on death row in Mississippi. The state dropped all charges in September, after the US Supreme Court concluded in June 2019 that the district attorney violated Curtis Flowers’ constitutional rights by intentionally removing African-Americans from the jury at the sixth trial in 2010.
The federal government ended a 17-year hiatus and carried out 10 executions between July and December. The relentless pursuit of the executions showed contempt by the Trump administration for safeguards and restrictions established under international law and standards to protect the rights of those facing the death penalty, including the prohibition of executions while appeals are pending and of people with mental (psychosocial) disabilities.
The federal government carried out more than three times the number of executions in 2020 than it had between 1977 and 2019 combined. State executions, however, slowed down, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since judicial killing resumed in the USA under revised statutes in 1977, a total of 1,529 people have been executed.
Forty men remained arbitrarily and indefinitely detained by the US military in the detention facility at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in violation of international law. Only one person had been transferred out of the facility since January 2017. Five prisoners cleared for transfer from Guantánamo since at least 2016 remained there at the end of 2020 and the Trump administration eliminated the system previously created to arrange for their transfer.
None of the 40 men had access to adequate medical treatment and those who survived torture and other ill-treatment by US agents were not given adequate rehabilitative services. Seven of them face charges in the military commission system, in breach of international law and standards, and could face the death penalty if convicted. The use of capital punishment in these cases, after proceedings that did not meet international standards for a fair trial, would constitute arbitrary deprivation of life. The trials of those accused of crimes related to the 11 September 2001 attacks were scheduled to begin on 11 January 2021, but were delayed in 2020 as pre-trial hearings in all cases were suspended.
Under its flawed “global war” doctrine, the USA repeatedly resorted to lethal force in countries around the world, including using armed drones, in violation of its obligations under international human rights law and, where applicable, international humanitarian law. NGOs, UN experts and the news media documented how such strikes inside and outside of zones of active armed conflict arbitrarily deprived protected individuals, including civilians, of their right to life and may have resulted in unlawful killings and injuries, in some cases constituting war crimes.
The weakening by the US government of protections for civilians during lethal operations increased the likelihood of unlawful killings, impeded the assessment of the legality of strikes and prevented accountability and access to justice and effective remedies for victims of unlawful killings and civilian harm.8
Despite calls by UN human rights experts and others for clarifications of the legal and policy standards and criteria the USA applies when using lethal force outside of the USA, the government continued to be neither transparent nor forthcoming.
In November, the UN Human Rights Council conducted the third UPR of the USA’s human rights record.
Since January 2018, the USA has not responded to communications from Special Procedures or accepted their requests for invitations to carry out official visits.9
Following announcements that the ICC would investigate violations of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity committed on the territory of Afghanistan since 1 May 2003, the Trump administration issued an Executive Order on 11 June which declared a “national emergency” and authorized asset freezes and family entry bans against certain ICC officials. The action undermined redress for potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by US civilian and military officials in connection with the armed conflict in Afghanistan, which the US authorities have failed to investigate, prosecute or punish.
In July, the US Department of State released a report by its advisory panel called the “Commission on Unalienable Rights”. The report appeared to unilaterally redefine what human rights mean, rejecting the interpretive authority of UN and other international human rights bodies, and specifically undermining the human rights framework by re-evaluating protections from discrimination for women, LGBTI people and others.10
In July, as it struggled to contain and address millions of cases of COVID-19, the USA initiated its withdrawal from the WHO, which was due to enter into force in July 2021. Under President Trump, the USA has also withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council, the UN cultural agency (UNESCO) and the global Paris Agreement to tackle climate change.