This year 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 document was a great and shining step forward in the articulation of how human beings might organize their social and political systems in accord with democratic and civilized ideals.
The U.S. has long wielded the Universal Declaration (UD) as a weapon to brandish selectively against officially designated enemies. But seven decades after its signing (and trumpeting) the document, American society stands in rarely noted gross violation of the declaration's key principles.
Take the UD's first's article: "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."
The United States falls far short here. 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., the most savagely unequal nation among all Western "capitalist democracies." Like the polarized and nasty political culture to which it is merged, the nation's extreme socio-economic imbalance is inconsistent with calls for conscience and brotherhood.
Article 2 of the UD proclaims, among other things, that everyone is entitled to human rights and freedoms without distinctions of "race, color" and "national or social origin." Here again, the U.S. stands in stark contravention.
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 UD's fourth article declares, "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude." Hundreds of thousands of U.S. prisoners -- the modern-day and very disproportionately nonwhite 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 de facto slaves and servants to employers (upon whom a shocking number of Americans absurdly depend for health coverage), financial institutions, insurance corporations, retail corporations, credit agencies, property associations, government tax collectors, gambling agencies (including state lottery systems), health care providers, lawyers and drug dealers.
The UD'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 common in 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 proclaims, "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.
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