Racism, anti-immigrant sentiments, and threats to democracy remained pressing human rights problems in the United States in 2023. The national poverty rate rose dramatically following the choice to cease a pandemic-period child tax credit. Economic inequality also rose, and the racial wealth gap remained high. The incarceration rate also increased, despite the US already having one of the highest rates in the world, with Black people vastly overrepresented in prisons and jails.
In its foreign policy, the US held human rights abusers accountable through targeted sanctions and provided new support to international justice mechanisms such as the investigation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) into the conflict in Ukraine. The US also undermined its stated commitment to human rights by providing military assistance to human rights-abusing states.
The administration of US President Joe Biden banned the government’s use of abusive commercial spyware and issued some policies aimed at improving racial equity in efforts to tackle climate change at home and abroad. The US Supreme Court issued decisions reinforcing laws aimed at protecting the right to vote.
However, states enacted an increasing number of laws that restrict access to reproductive care, including abortion, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. The federal government has not taken sufficient steps necessary to limit global warming, even though the US is among the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters. State and federal authorities continued to pursue policies aimed at deterring people from seeking asylum in the US, in flagrant violation of international human rights law, pushing them to take more dangerous routes.
A federal task force documented harassment and threats against election officials, revealing the need to better protect election administrators from intimidation and to address the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
The racial wealth gap remained stark, with Black families having 24 cents and Hispanic families having 23 cents for every US$1 of white family wealth, and has changed very little over the last 50 years. Numerous studies have shown that drastic economic intervention, including reparations in a variety of forms, is needed to address this gap as well as continuing racial disparities in access to adequate health, nutrition, education, employment, and housing, among other things.
In May, US Representative Cori Bush introduced a resolution urging the federal government to provide reparations for enslavement and its legacies and to support existing proposals such as H.R. 40. H.R. 40 is a House of Representatives bill that proposes establishing a federal commission to study and make recommendations on reparations, which has been introduced every congressional session since 1989 but has yet to pass. Congressional leadership did not bring either the new resolution or the House bill to the floor for a vote.
While federal efforts stalled, states made progress on reparations. In May, a California reparations task force, created by 2020 legislation, submitted reparatory proposals to the state governor for consideration. Also in May, Washington state enacted a law to create a downpayment assistance program for people directly affected by past racist housing covenants. In June, the New York state legislature passed a bill to study the economic impacts of enslavement and the government’s role in supporting that institution, which the governor had not signed at time of writing.
In July, a lawsuit seeking reparations for the last three known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was dismissed by an Oklahoma judge. The survivors appealed, and in August, the Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. In October, Hughes Van Ellis, who at 102 was the youngest of the three living survivors, died.
After two years of historic declines in poverty due to expanded social protection in response to Covid-19, the US Supplemental Poverty Measure, which incorporates the influence of government assistance and geographical cost of living differences, rose dramatically, jumping to 12.4 percent in 2022 from 7.8 percent in 2021. Income inequality in the US is very high compared to other wealthy countries, with the top 10 percent of earners capturing nearly half of all income and the bottom 50 percent getting just 13 percent.
After taxes and government transfers are considered, the Gini index, a statistical measure of income inequality, for the US has increased by 3.2 percent since 2021. Wealth inequality is similarly stark, with the poorest 50 percent of the US population owning only just 1.5 percent of the country’s private wealth.
The US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with roughly 2 million people held in state and federal jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities on any given day, and millions more on parole and probation. Despite some reductions in incarceration rates for Black people, they remain vastly overrepresented in jails and prisons.
In 2021, the most recent year for which such data is available, the rate at which people were incarcerated in jails and prisons nationwide increased for the first time since 2005, although it remained below pre-pandemic levels.
Widespread calls to reduce overreliance on policing and address societal problems instead with investments in housing, health care, and education were largely drowned out by calls for more police funding and the rollback of police reforms. The latter calls were driven by persistent misinformation and misleading narratives about rising crime rates and decreased public safety, often generated and manipulated by law enforcement, despite substantial evidence of the success of reforms and community investments.
Local governments criminalized unhoused communities across the country and expanded forced or coerced treatment to address people living on the streets.
Most US police departments refuse to report data on their use of force, necessitating nongovernmental data collection and analysis. As of September 28, police had killed over 800 people in 2023, similar to numbers in prior years. On a per capita basis, police kill Black people at almost three times the rate they kill white people.
Children continue to be tried as adults in all 50 states, despite international standards repudiating the practice. Those transferred to the adult system are disproportionately youth of color, with racial and ethnic disparities persisting at almost every point of contact with the justice system, including arrests, pre-disposition detention, and post-adjudication incarceration.
In 2023, three states took steps toward eliminating the sentence of life without parole (LWOP) for children. In total, 33 states and Washington, DC, have now banned it or have no one serving such a sentence. Despite this progress, the US remains the only country in the world to sentence children convicted of crimes to die in prison.
In February, the US Department of Labor reported a sharp increase in child labor violations, and investigations carried out by media outlets showed children, often unaccompanied migrants, working in dangerous and exploitative conditions, sacrificing their health, safety, and education. Some states moved to roll back child labor protections. Longstanding exemptions in US labor laws allow children as young as 12 to work legally in agriculture, the deadliest sector for child workers.
Overdose deaths continued to rise, reaching another record level. They first surpassed 100,000 in the 12-month period ending April 2021 and increased to 111,355 in the 12-month period ending April 2023. Racial disparities in overdose deaths also continued to widen, with the rate of Black deaths exceeding those of white ones, due in part to racial bias in policies and access to treatment.
Federal and state authorities continue to rely significantly on criminalization to address harmful drug use, even though harm reduction strategies that offer health-centered care and access to voluntary treatment have proven more effective.
In 2022, the Biden administration became the first US administration to invest in harm reduction, but stronger and more robust investments in health-centered approaches are needed. In March, the US Food and Drug Administration approved naloxone, the first over-the-counter drug used to reverse opioid overdose.
Immigrants’ Rights and Border Communities
The 2020 Title 42 summary expulsions policy expired in May but was replaced by a new labyrinthine asylum rule. Under Title 42, justified as an emergency measure to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, the Biden administration summarily expelled people 2.3 million times without screening them for asylum.
Under the new asylum rule, many asylum seekers face expedited removals, arbitrary detention, prosecution, and a five-year ban on returning to the US unless they make an appointment at select US land border ports of entry using “CBP One” prior to crossing the border. CBP One is a difficult-to-access phone app that often fails to recognize faces with darker skin tones. This process can take several months and exposes asylum seekers to systematic targeting by cartels and Mexican government officials for kidnapping, extortion, sexual assault, and other harms.
As a candidate, Biden pledged to end private immigration detention, but as of July, 90 percent of the 30,000 non-citizens who are in detention on average each day in the US were held in private facilities.
In June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ramped up his already ruthless border approach by installing razor wire and buoys with circular saws in or near the Rio Grande. Under Operation Lone Star, high-speed vehicle pursuits and the accidents they cause in communities throughout south Texas are a threat to public safety, with harmful consequences for migrant passengers and Texas residents alike. Human Rights Watch found that at least 74 people have been killed and 189 injured since the policy began in March 2021.
The battle to defend multiracial democracy in the US continued. In June, the US Supreme Court, in Allen v. Milligan, struck down Alabama’s gerrymandered congressional maps, reaffirming that racial discrimination in voting laws, maps, and practices is illegal. Also in June, the US Supreme Court, in Moore v. Harper, upheld the right of people in the US to seek a remedy for voting rights violations in state courts. However, at least 14 states passed laws in 2023 that make it more difficult to vote.
State-level lawmakers continued to undermine democracy by banning books and passing laws that restrict truthful classroom discussions of race, history, sexual orientation, and gender. This censorship has the potential to undermine civic participation by erasing the galvanizing stories of ordinary citizens who organized to promote human rights.
The movement for universal suffrage earned victories. New Mexico and Minnesota passed laws that allow individuals to vote upon release from prison. A federal court overturned Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban for individuals convicted of some felony offenses, calling the practice cruel and unusual.
For the first time in US history, a former president faced significant sanctions, including criminal and civil charges, in part for his efforts to overturn the 2020 elections, a serious infringement of the right to vote. New studies by the federal government and civil society groups, revealed vulnerabilities in US democracy, including the need to better protect elections administrators from threats and intimidation, which continued to increase. Since 2020, when the US Department of Justice opened a task force into the matter, 14 investigations into attempts to threaten election workers have been initiated, 9 of which had resulted in findings of wrongdoing at time of writing. The year also revealed the need to better address the spread of misinformation and disinformation through social media platforms.
Climate Change Policy and Impacts
The US remains the world’s largest oil and gas producer and historically is the country that has most contributed to the climate crisis. It also remains among the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters.
The Biden administration issued an executive order that directs all federal agencies to incorporate the pursuit of environmental justice into their missions and announced the creation of a new policy committee to coordinate efforts to prioritize public health, economic development, and equity in tackling the global plastics pollution crisis. Virtually all plastics are derived from fossil fuels.
However, the US is also on track to be responsible for the world’s largest expansion in oil and gas extraction from 2023 to 2050. Fossil fuels are the single largest contributor to global warming and can be linked to human rights harms. These impacts are disproportionately borne by already marginalized communities—including Black, Indigenous, and other people of color and low-income communities—and perpetuate systemic racism.
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
The June 2022 US Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning the constitutionally protected right to abortion, continued to have reverberating negative impacts on women, girls, and other people in the US who can become pregnant.
As of September 15, 22 states had banned abortion or restricted access to abortion at earlier stages and 14 states had enacted laws that criminalize healthcare providers who perform abortions. Some states also made it a crime for anyone, including healthcare providers, to assist pregnant people in obtaining an abortion. As a result, approximately 22 million women and girls of reproductive age, as well as other people who can become pregnant, now live in US states where abortion access is heavily restricted or inaccessible.
In August 2023, a federal appeals court, attempting to reconcile two conflicting lower court opinions issued within minutes of each other—one revoking the approval of mifepristone, a safe and effective drug used for medical abortions, and the other keeping it available—ruled that access to the drug should be limited in certain contexts: when mailed and prescribed via telemedicine. The US Department of Justice and the manufacturer appealed the decision.
Racial disparities in access to health care continue to leave millions of women of color at risk. Cervical cancer is a highly preventable and treatable disease, yet over 4,200 women die from it each year in the US, disproportionately Black women in the South.
People with disabilities are three times less likely to be employed, and those who are employed often earn less than their peers for doing the same work. Public spaces, including transit systems and voting locations, often remain inaccessible.
Wellness checks for mental health crises by police are still prone to have fatal and harmful consequences for people with mental health conditions. Authorities have been slow to adopt alternative approaches featuring nonpolice emergency response teams.
Older People’s Rights
In January, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), fulfilling a 2022 Biden commitment, announced it would audit the appropriateness of nursing homes’ schizophrenia diagnoses to reduce the misuse of antipsychotic drugs to control behavior, known as “chemical restraints.” In August, CMS proposed minimum nursing home staffing levels of only 3 hours of direct care per resident per day, lower than the minimum 4.1 hours per day recommended by a CSM-funded study and the Institute of Medicine.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
At the state level, lawmakers introduced hundreds of bills aiming to restrict the rights of LGBT people—more than in any prior year—and dozens of them were enacted into law.
The majority of these efforts have targeted transgender people, particularly transgender children in schools. As of September 2023, 22 states ban at least some best-practice medical care for transgender children, and 5 of these states criminalize such care as a felony offense; 23 states prohibit transgender children from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity; 11 states ban various discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools; and 9 states prohibit transgender people from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity in K-12 schools, with some of these bans encompassing other public facilities as well.
Positive developments have failed to keep pace. Michigan is the only state where lawmakers adopted a comprehensive LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination law in 2023, making it the 22nd state to do so. The US has failed to enact comprehensive federal legislation that would expressly protect LGBT people from discrimination in areas such as education, housing, public accommodations, and federally funded programs.
Technology and Human Rights
The US continues to lack a human rights-centered federal data protection law, leaving personal data open to abuse by both government and private actors, particularly commercial tech sector actors with advanced data collection, profiling, and targeting abilities.
Numerous federal agencies are considering how to regulate powerful new technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI). Regulations should contain rights protections and enforcement mechanisms and be informed by civil society inputs on human rights harms.
Workers recruited by digital labor platforms to provide ride-hailing and delivery services continue to experience low, unpredictable wages and unsafe working conditions.
The Biden administration in March issued an executive order banning government agencies from using commercial spyware that has been misused to target political dissent or perpetuate discrimination and marginalization. Commercial spyware continues to be a pervasive threat to human rights and human rights workers globally, including Human Rights Watch staff.
At time of writing, 30 foreign Muslim men remained detained at the US military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including 5 charged with involvement in the attacks on September 11, 2001. Talks stalled on a deal for the five 9/11 accused to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences, after President Biden rejected the men’s requests for care to help them recover from Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) torture and to not serve their sentences in solitary confinement. A judge found one 9/11 defendant not mentally competent to stand trial.
Two detainees from Malaysia agreed to plead guilty before Guantanamo’s fundamentally flawed military commissions in connection with the deadly 2002 bombings in Bali and a 2003 bombing of a Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia. They were expected to be transferred to Malaysia after sentencing in January 2024.
Two other men awaited trial and a third awaited sentencing at Guantanamo. Nineteen have never been charged. Only one man still held at Guantanamo has been convicted by a military commission.
President Biden strongly criticized the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on October 7 that resulted in the killing of hundreds of Israeli and other civilians. He committed increased support for Israel’s defense beyond already approved annual military aid. Such security assistance and arms transfers violated US domestic laws and policies that condition US military aid on ensuring partners are not in violation of international law. US officials publicly and privately urged Israel to minimize civilian harm in its military response and allow humanitarian assistance into Gaza.
The US continued to provide significant military and economic support to Ukraine in 2023 in opposition to Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. In July, President Biden authorized the sharing evidence of international crimes being committed in Ukraine with the ICC. Also in July, Biden approved the transfer of US cluster munitions to Ukraine. These weapons are banned by an international treaty due to the dangers they pose to civilians, but neither the US nor Ukraine are parties to that treaty.
After conflict broke out in Sudan in April, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on a leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) armed group and visa restrictions on an RSF commander in West Darfur state. Three private Sudanese companies and a private Emirati company were sanctioned under a May executive order. The State Department set up a “Sudan Observatory” with civil society to document atrocities in the conflict.
At the United Nations Human Rights Council in October, the US supported a successful resolution to establish an international fact-finding mission for Sudan. At the UN Security Council that same month, the US co-sponsored with Ecuador a resolution, which was then adopted, to authorize a Kenya-led multinational security force to Haiti; it also vetoed a resolution that both condemned Hamas and called for all sides involved in the hostilities in Israel and Palestine to comply with international humanitarian law. In November, the US abstained from voting on a UN Security Council resolution calling for extended humanitarian pauses in Gaza and the release of Israelis held hostage. The US abstention allowed the resolution to be adopted.
In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally determined that all parties to the conflict in northern Ethiopia had committed war crimes. He noted that the Ethiopian government forces and its allies, including Eritrea, were responsible for crimes against humanity. In late June, the administration notified Congress that the government was no longer engaging in a “pattern of gross violations of human rights,” allowing it to qualify for US and international financial assistance, despite the ongoing commission of abuses.
In June, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a state dinner at the White House and delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress, despite increasing human rights abuses by his party and its supporters.
A new Conventional Arms Transfer Policy announced in February allows the State Department to deny a sale if a country would “more likely than not” harm civilians with US weapons. In September, the State Department created a Civilian Harm Incident Response Group (CHIRG) to analyze allegations of US military aid being used to harm civilians in recipient countries.
The Egyptian government receives $1.3 billion in US military aid annually. Although Congress has conditioned a portion of these funds on actions that include strengthening human rights, in September, the Biden administration used a national security waiver to allow $235 million to go to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government. Another $85 million was withheld because of Egypt’s poor record on political prisoners. In September, members of Congress changed course and placed a hold on the previously approved $235 million following the indictment of Senator Robert Menendez for allegations of corruption that benefited the Egyptian government.
Iran released five Americans imprisoned on unproven charges in exchange for five Iranians imprisoned in the US. In parallel, the US Treasury issued a waiver allowing Iran access to $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil revenue via banks in Doha for humanitarian use. However, in October, the US reportedly blocked access to these funds following the Hamas attacks in Israel.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the Biden administration prioritized efforts to restrict the flow of migrants and refugees traveling north. While the Biden administration took steps to defend the right to vote in Brazil and Guatemala and to limit deforestation in the Amazon, its responses to other pressing human rights situations, including in Mexico and Cuba, often prioritized domestic implications and politics, undermining its credibility on human rights.