The U.S. Human Rights Record: A Systematic Review

What is the current state of economic and social rights in the United States? What are the underlying structural barriers to protecting and fulfilling these rights? The United Nations periodically seeks to answer the first question, inviting human rights experts, governments, non-governmental organizations and community groups to submit evidence about a country’s human rights situation. NESRI took part in the first-ever UN Universal Periodic Review of the United States, carried out in 2010, which offered an opportunity to analyze the barriers to realizing economic and social rights in the United States. NESRI’s report to the United Nations, submitted with seven collaborators and over 40 endorsing groups, gives stark evidence of the persistent denial of economic and social human rights in the United States. In "Toward Economic and Social Rights in the United States: From Market Competition to Public Goods", NESRI shows how the United States has failed to protect and fulfill the human rights to education, health care, housing, work, and social security. The report documents severe problems of impoverishment, exclusion and criminalization, which disproportionally hurt low-income people and communities of color and jeopardize the well-being of the entire U.S. population. NESRI’s report points to three key barriers to realizing rights in the United States: An overreliance on market mechanisms to meet fundamental needs, exacerbated by increasing privatization of public services and infrastructure. Inequitable public spending and revenue measures that mainly benefit the wealthy and private corporations. A political culture of competitive individualism that casts human needs as private matters, and perpetuates unequal socioeconomic conditions and structural racism. Summary of NESRI’s recommendations: Implement universal policies that include everyone and ensure that everyone’s fundamental needs are met. Raise and distribute resources equitably. Strengthen the public sector to ensure that the core services necessary to meet people’s needs are shared as public goods, not sold as commodities. Ensure that everyone is able to participate in the decision-making and oversight related to how their needs are met. What is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)? The United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a human rights monitoring mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council. Every four years, the UPR assesses how each of the 192 UN Member States adhere to their human rights obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, various human rights treaties, voluntary commitments, and applicable international law. The first review of the United States was carried out in 2010, and the UN recommendations to the United States were adopted in March 2011. The UN Recommendations and the Struggle for Human Rights in the U.S. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights compiled existing UN information about human rights problems in the United States, and the Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council issued a long list of recommendations for the United States. Recommendations on social and economic rights ranged from ending racial discrimination to ensuring the rights to health and food, expanding social protection and meeting people’s needs for adequate housing. The U.S. government gave a rhetorical nod to many recommendations, especially those considered aspirational in character or deemed as conforming to existing U.S. law. The government paid no attention as to whether such laws – e.g. provisions for equal opportunities or collective bargaining – had been implemented in reality or were sufficient to rectify human rights problems. The government rejected more specific recommendations for concrete actions, such as setting up a national human rights institution to ensure accountability or enacting a legal requirement for maternity leave. It also rejected outright any recommendation that called for new or more effective legal provisions for human rights implementation in the United States. NESRI issued a statement condemning the U.S. government’s response to the UPR, deploring the hypocrisy of the U.S. political establishment, which sings the praise of human rights internationally yet continues to deprive its own people of those very rights at home. By merely paying lip service to human rights, the government missed this opportunity to take real steps toward ensuring that the U.S. population can enjoy these rights in their day-to-day lives. Since NESRI and its grassroots collaborators used the UPR process to identify systemic barriers to realizing rights in the United States, it was clear to participants that such entrenched problems could not simply be solved by recommendations from the United Nations. They did not call for band-aids to cover up entrenched human rights problems. Systemic change requires building the power of social movements, and NESRI’s analysis of the systemic nature of human rights denials in the United States aspired to support the capacity of community-led efforts for real change. The U.S. Human Rights Record: Resources NESRI’s report: the published version of the report includes case studies of four groups fighting for human rights in their local communities. A hard copy of the report is available for free by emailing info[at] The press release accompanying the report is here. NESRI fact sheets (also available as hard copies): Universality Equity Public good The US Human Rights Network compiled and published all joint civil society reports from the U.S. The UN issued an official summary of all joint civil society reports from the U.S. The U.S. government report to the United Nations. NESRI’s statement on the U.S. government report. Recommendations from the Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council. The response from the U.S. government to the recommendations. NESRI’s statement on the U.S. government response. Implementation advocacy on the UN recommendations: the Urban Justice Center’s guide to advocacy for implementation of UN recommendations on gender equity.