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Let's Talk Human Rights

My Priorities for Reviving Human Rights in 2021

By Sierra Johnson '23

In 2020, the United States endured widespread social unrest, an on-going public health crisis, and economic uncertainty under the presidency of Donald Trump. Moreover, the Trump administration ushered in actions in contravention of human rights standards - such as threatening the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), detaining children and parents in cages with unsanitary conditions, and questioning the existence of climate change. Such actions diminish the progress of human rights in the United States. In light of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, I believe it is essential that young people become more invested in the future of human rights in our nation. 

In light of the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building, the political polarization in our society, and the policies of President Trump, President Biden has focused on three pressing human rights related issues: management of the coronavirus, racial justice, and climate change. 

1. Coronavirus

The public health crisis decimating the American population is a direct threat to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that attests to the “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being.” Under the Trump administration, over 24 million Americans were infected with the virus, and over 400,000 have died. The safety of American citizens has been jeopardized by inaccessible testing, unclear messaging on mask wearing, hampered vaccination distribution, and the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization. According to Article 25, humans are entitled to the “right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”  

The Biden administration prioritizes mandating masks, expanding vaccinations, and ramping up the accessibility of testing nationwide. Through rapid development promised by the Biden administration and reexpansion of access to health care under the ACA, the United States will inch closer to ensuring adequate health and living standards for its citizens. 

2. Racial Justice

Current policing practices in the U.S. have proven to be deadly, discriminatory, and disturbing. With the increase of police brutality in 2020, the public witnessed the deaths of multiple vulnerable and innocent individuals. Such occurrences have divided the nation and revealed that many Black Americans feel unprotected in their homes and communities. Black Americans are targeted by the criminal justice system disproportionately. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), “84% of Black adults say white people are treated better than Black people by police; 63% of white adults agree based on 2019 research on police relations”. Moreover, the trauma associated with witnessing horrific police brutality broadcasted across social media platforms can have devastating effects on one's mental health. NAACP writes, “On average, Black Americans are exposed to four police killings of other unarmed Black Americans in the same state each year.” 

As Black Lives Matter peaceful protests took place throughout the country demanding change, the Trump administration rejected calls for equity and promoted “law and order” rather than unity. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, national origin, color, race, and religion. This is in line with Article 2 of the UDHR, which declares that everyone is entitled to human rights without distinction of any kind. Moreover, the U.S. is a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In the US, there is agreement that race relations need improvement. According to NBC News, there is a collective discomfort of current race relations. “Seven in 10 now say that race relations are bad, including majorities of Democrats (86 percent), Republicans (58 percent), white voters (69 percent), Hispanics (76 percent) and Black voters (80 percent).” 

Many proposals by the Biden administration feature dismantling racism within institutions, reducing the number of individuals incarcerated, and promoting rehabilitation. By firmly improving equality and fairness regardless of race, the Biden administration can promote a sense of relief and hope among African Americans.

3. Climate Change

Scientists have increased their urgent warnings regarding irreversible climate change and its harmful effects on the environment. With reversals of environmental protections and U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord by the Trump Administration, the threat of climate change to humanity has not dissipated. President Biden has issued a series of proposals to reverse the damages and make progress. Seeking to focus on sustainable infrastructure development, initiate net-zero emissions by 2050, and rally the global community to combat climate change, President Biden demonstrates that his policies target the betterment of the American people and the international community. 

To me, international efforts are critical to meeting Article 28 of the UDHR. Article 28 states, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” With leadership from the United States in a global effort to reduce the effects of climate change, countries will be able to reduce mortality rates, ensure the protection of their citizens from natural disasters and ecosystem loss, and march forward to a more sustainable and healthy environment for future generations. 

With progress on these priorities, I hope we will see a revival of human rights in the United States. The future of young people like me will depend on the actions and legislation carried out by the Biden administration in the next four years. This is a pivotal moment in U.S. history where elected officials can pave the way to healing, transformation, and mutual understanding in the wake of a divisive election. I believe that these next four years will be critical not only in restoring the country’s faith in democracy, but also ensuring further enjoyment of the protections outlined in the UDHR by all U.S. citizens.

Sierra is a criminal justice studies major with a concentration in pre-law and minors in pre-law and race and social justice from Chicago, IL. As a student engagement intern at the HRC, she is eager to form connections across campus and expand discussions on important human rights issues facing our world specifically relating to the criminal justice system, government, and political process.

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