Our Voices

USA Unveiled: Human Rights in the United States

John Lewis Young Leader Profile: Mya MacNeil

Numerous human rights activists and organizations, including RFK Human Rights, continue to bring attention to alarming human rights concerns in the United States. From the inhumane treatment of prisoners and immigrants, to the exploitation of child labor and the growing challenges to freedom of the press, the United States has proven it severely lacks the practice and enforcement of human rights standards. In addition, there is a significant dearth of available information on the status of human rights in the United States. The nearly complete absence of information is concerning because a lack of documentation allows immunity for violations and makes it exceedingly challenging to address and rectify violations, ultimately undermining efforts to ensure justice and dignity within our institutions.

As the spotlight intensifies on pressing human rights issues, so does the need for a comprehensive research project that uncovers the status of human rights in the United States. My project is inspired by the CIRIGHTS human rights data project which analyzes the status of dozens of human rights for all countries in the world besides the United States — a dataset that I’ve had the immense privilege of working on. For this project, I focused on three areas: the rights of prisoners, child labor in the agricultural sector, and freedom of the press. I analyzed annual reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, from 2000-2022, and then assigned a number that indicated the degree to which the United States was adhering to human rights standards.

Overall, my goal is to advocate for tangible improvements in human rights practices throughout the United States using a data-driven approach to aid evidence based policy making. The final report for this project is scheduled to be released in May 2024 along with the data that will be publicly available on the U.S.A. Unveiled website.

What I found was that in all three categories, the United States either demonstrated no adherence to the human rights criteria, as in the case of child labor in the agricultural sector, or only partial adherence to the criteria, as in the case of prisoner’s rights. While there is a general lack of reporting and available information, it is clear that just because these violations are not being tracked or recorded, it does not mean that they are not happening.

For example, it is common knowledge that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and individuals within the prison system endure inhumane conditions, such as prolonged solitary confinement and lack of access to mental health care and rehabilitation services. The use and extremity of solitary confinement has faced international criticism on numerous occasions. In fact, in 2020, UN human rights expert Nils Melzer, raised alarm over the prevalence of solitary confinement and the dehumanizing measures used in United States prisons. While there have been some strides to address these issues, the United States scored a 1 in this category, meaning that they are only partially adhering to human rights standards.

In the area of child labor rights in the agricultural sector, the United States scored even worse, as many federal regulations and state laws allow children to work, including Oregon, which sets the legal minimum working age at 9 years old. Many states exempt agricultural work from even these lenient statutes, and oversight of these rules is extremely limited. Several states are currently trying to enact bills that would further weaken child labor laws, putting already marginalized populations at an increased risk for exploitation.

After analyzing available reports, I found a lack of federal protections for child farm workers, elevated rates of school dropout, and a variety of injury and illness from pesticides, heat exposure, and hazardous machinery. This data also demonstrates the lack of effort by the United States government to enact laws and enforce regulations that protect our children.

Freedom of the press was the most under-recorded right out of the three and the most challenging to score. Nationally, violations of media rights peaked from 2017 – 2021. Concerns over media rights mostly arose due to former President Trump’s public attacks on journalists and media outlets that questioned his administration’s policies which increased the threat of violence against journalists and eroded trust. Furthermore, journalists reporting on public events were often targets for arrest and brutality by law enforcement. Here, I used the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker as well as reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to determine that the United States only partially adheres to the criteria for this human right.

Overall, despite activism efforts and calls for reform, the United States government has demonstrated a reluctance to align with the international standards they played a role in establishing. My project aims to highlight the lack of available data which signifies a critical gap in our understanding of these issues and underscores the urgency for more comprehensive research and data collection efforts. Similarly, the lack of available information and reports on these rights demonstrate a dire situation where transparency and accountability are sorely lacking, hindering progress towards achieving justice and equality. While the data is not perfect, it is a starting point for which scholars and activists can build and expand, a much needed effort that will help to change policy and increase adherence to international human rights standards.

Mya Macneil

Mya Macneil is a John Lewis Young Leaders fellow and student at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston studying International Studies, Japanese, Political Science. Learn more about her capstone project here.