Overview of the human rights and democracy situation:
In 2019, the main human rights related issues in the US included the death penalty, the use of the detention facility in Guantanamo, the protection of the rights of migrants and refugees, and the prioritisation of religious freedom over other rights such as the rights of LGBTI persons and women's rights.
While the US has continued its disengagement on human rights issues at multilateral fora, and notably at the UN, the administration has been particularly active targeting select human rights abusers around the world through restrictive measures and setting up parallel multilateral-type mechanism on preferred human rights topics (such as freedom of religion or belief), outside the established UN structures. The creation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights to review the role of human rights in US foreign policy has worried human rights groups. The reason is that it could inject US ‘cultural relativism’ that could undermine the universality of human rights and represent a setback for a number or rights, including the rights of LGBTI persons, women's rights and economic, social and cultural rights, and for the US international human rights commitments in general.
As regards abolition of the death penalty, the overall trend was positive with significant advances at state level: New Hampshire became the 21st state to abolish the death penalty in May, Governor Gavin Newsom of California declared a moratorium, and republican support advanced legislations in several states, including Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada. Executions and new death sentences remained near historic lows for the fifth consecutive year, with 22 executions in 2019 (down from 25 in 2018 and 23 in 2017), and 35 new death sentences (down from 41 last year). However, the Department of Justice announced in July the resumption of executions at federal level, although a court temporarily blocked the executions from happening because of concerns with the lethal injection protocol. Public support for the death penalty remains steady, at 56%, however, for the first time a majority of Americans (60%) believe that life in prison without parole is a better option for punishing convicted murderers than the death penalty.
Since President Trump revoked the 2009 Executive Order on the closure of the detention facilities at US Naval Station Guantánamo Bay in 2018, the facility remains open but without changes in the number of detainees (40 inmates remained in detention, including 5 cleared for release and 26 not charged with a crime). In March, the State Department announced that the US will implement a policy of visa restrictions on individuals directly responsible for any International Criminal Court (ICC) investigations on US personnel. The visa restrictions are also intended to deter ICC efforts to pursue allied personnel, including Israelis, without their consent, and the US has threatened additional measures if the ICC does not change its course.
In 2019, the administration introduced several changes to the US migration and asylum system aimed at curbing the influx of migrants and asylum seekers arriving at the US southern border. These include the adoption of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the duration of their legal proceedings in the US, bilateral agreements with Central American countries resembling ‘safe third-country’ agreements, and expedited removal proceedings. Poor conditions in detention centres, including overcrowding and lack of proper food and hygiene in facilities holding children, were extensively reported in the media. Moreover, negative narrative about migrants has contributed to unwelcoming attitudes towards migrants and asylum seekers, and migrant human rights groups. New historically low annual cap of 18,000 individuals was set for the US refugee resettlement program in 2020. At the same time, negative rhetoric against journalists and media outlets is undermining public trust.
The US focus on protecting religious freedom has had a negative impact on the rights of LGBTI persons and their access to services, as well as on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). In this regard, the administration rejects previously agreed language on SRHR in multilateral fora and expanded the so-called Global Gag Rule/Mexico City Policy, which requires US NGOs to ensure that foreign NGOs receiving any funding from them do not engage in abortion-related activities. In an attempt to challenge Roe vs Wade, the US Supreme Court ruling that protects abortion rights, many US states have passed so-called ‘heartbeats bills’ that seek to restrict abortion and impose disproportionate sentences on women and healthcare professionals. At the same time, the administration is seeking to roll back protections for LGBTI persons put in place by the Obama administration, impacting access of LGBTI persons to healthcare, housing, adoption and other services.
EU action - key focus areas:
The European Union remains the most engaged international actor on the abolition of the death penalty in the United States with the active support of Member States embassies and consulates across the country. The EU made 6 demarches in death penalty cases in 2019 (down from 7 in 2018) mostly in Texas and Tennessee, as well as three interventions to Governors unrelated to individual cases, including congratulating Governor Gavin Newson for declaring a moratorium on executions in California. The EU also organised a fact finding mission on the use of the death penalty to Carlson City and Reno, Nevada, in May 2019 with a group of 10 human rights counsellors from 6 Member States, the EU delegation, Norway, Iceland and Switzerland to meet with local authorities, legislators, academia and NGOs. On the World and Europe Day Against the Death Penalty, the Head of the EU Delegation to the United States, Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis, gave a keynote speech at an event in the Vatican embassy and participated in the EU delegation's event at the American University. The event featured the screening of the documentary ‘In the Executioner's Shadow’ and a panel discussion with the director and producer of the film, and several of the individuals whose personal stories appeared in the movie, including the mother of a murder victim and a former executioner.
The EU delegation highlighted the EU's commitment to equality and non-discrimination of LGBTI persons through official participation, for the first time, in the Capital Pride Parade in June, together with a number of Member States, through the organisation of a panel discussion entitled ‘LGBT+ Entrepreneurship: A Transatlantic Conversation' and a reception honouring the 2019 Front Line Defenders awardees for their work advancing the rights of LGBTI persons around the world.
The EU delegation sought to elevate the profile of the EU as a supporter of women’s rights by hosting the launch of the annual report of UNFPA, by organising an exhibition featuring photographs of women around the world by an acclaimed Romanian photographer, and by highlighting women's rights at an event co-organised with the embassy of the Netherlands to mark International Human Rights Day on 10 December where the Head of the EU Delegation, Stavros Lambrinidis, spoke together with Afghan Ambassador Roya Rahmani.
The EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore, conducted his first working visit to the US in July 2019 and had meetings with the White House, the State Department, as well as with think tanks and civil society. His visit provided an opportunity to assess developments in the US as perceived by civil society, and to explore synergies with the administration, while also conveying EU concerns on some aspects of US policy. In December, the EU and the US relaunched the human rights consultations in Brussels, reaffirming their strong commitment to democratic principles and human rights.