Human Rights Violations in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Benjamin Dangl: Please discuss the activities which took place during the Katrina rescue efforts which violated the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty ratified by the United States in the 1990’s.

Ann Fagan Ginger: Photographs of what happened on the Crescent City Connection Bridge show African Americans who were seeking to obey FEMA evacuation orders were forced back by the Gretna police department and city government and Louisiana Bridge security forces. One African American woman reported that someone shot over her head to keep her from crossing into Gretna the White, upper class neighborhood on the other side. No federal forces stopped these practices, although they were then in New Orleans.

The media also reported two major groups who were left to die by federal and local authorities: prisoners in some detention facilities locked in their cells, and disabled seniors and hospital patients who were not given the priority help they needed before their homes and institutions were flooded.

In recent years, the U.S. Government’s failure to continue funding work on old levees led to the dikes breaking, flooding regions where people with low incomes lived, especially African Americans. Immediately after Katrina hit, the authorities flooded regions where African American people lived, including the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. They did not flood regions where moneyed people lived, primarily whites.

Many orders by FEMA were not racially discriminatory on their face, but everyone familiar with the facts knew they would have a disparate impact on people of color because the poverty rate in Black communities is much higher than in White communities. E.g., FEMA early ordered citizens to evacuate by car when thousands of African Americans had no cars. Then, when empty federally-ordered buses were driven in, they passed by Black citizens, including the elderly and disabled, walking by the side of the road, rather than picking them up and taking them to a safe, dray place.

Later federal officials ordered citizens to get into buses leaving the area, without giving them time to find their children or parents or grandparents. They also were not told them destination and forbidding people from getting off before the only, final stop.

FEMA also ordered thousands of government employees to the Gulf region, with no training in the unique Creole culture and habits of African American and Native American residents there, leading to media reports of vast looting by African Americans when this was not the case. And it led to the treatment of people in the coliseums not as equals but as poor people of color who could be denied the necessities of life: toilets, water, food, air conditioning, blankets, or trained social workers.

This was intensified by imposing martial law and sending police and military forces to treat Katrina victims as prisoners, not as internally displaced persons suffering several emotional and spiritual trauma as they realized that their homes were lost forever.

FEMA also immediately announced no-bid contracts with large, white-owned corporations not based in the Guld region, rather than encouraging contract applications by local, African American businesses.

Enforcing the curfew unequally by arresting and event shooting at black residents for not obeying the curfew in Algiers, Louisiana while permitting white residents to ride around in pick up trucks, leaving the impression that David Duke and the KKK were active.

Announcing confusing and contradictory requirements for people in need of cash assistance and financial relief and material support, and setting impossibly short deadlines to file applications for assistance for destroyed homes before people could possibly return to their homes and estimate the amount of damage.

The most basic rights enunciated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is the right of every human being to life and to human dignity (preamble and Art. 10.1, 24.1 and 26). U.S. Government made a commitment to treat everyone under its jurisdiction without distinctions based on race, color, sex, language, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, in Art. 2.1, 3; 4.1 forbids such discrimination even in a national emergency. Art. 6.1 guarantees the inherent right to life. Art. 7 forbids degrading treatment. Art. 9.1 and 12 forbids depriving people of their liberty, e.g., to move about, except under procedures established by law. Art. 17 forbids interference with the privacy, family or home of every person. Art. 23.1 states the government’s commitment to protect the family as the fundamental group unit in society. Art. 24.1 is a commitment to equal protection for all, including minors.

Many of these actions also violate the Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which covers more than government treatment of prisoners and people in the criminal justice system.

The most basic right enunciated in the ICCPR is the right of every human being to human dignity (preamble and Art. 10.1, 24.1 and 26). U.S. Government made a commitment to treat everyone under its jurisdiction without distinctions based on race, color, sex, language, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, in Art. 2.1, 3; 4.1 forbids such discrimination even in a national emergency. Art. 6.1 guarantees the inherent right to life. Art. 7 forbids degrading treatment. Art. 9.1 and 12 forbids depriving people of their liberty, e.g., to move about, except under procedures established by law. Art. 17 forbids interference with the privacy, family or home of every person. Art. 23.1 states the government’s commitment to protect the family as the fundamental group unit in society. Art. 24.1 is a commitment to equal protection for all, including minors.

BD: What could be the ramifications for the US government if they are proven guilty of violating this treaty?

AFG: The enforcement of UN treaties is not the same as the enforcement of state or federal statutes in the U.S. It might be compared to the system of stopping violations of Executive authority by the President or Commander-in-Chief, through defeat for re-election.

UN human rights treaties are enforced by requiring each signatory nation to file periodic reports with the committee enforcing the treaty. The committee then lists the Issues it finds in the reports and conducts a public hearing with government officials from the reporting country, listening to their reports asking questions, and then issuing a report with a list of actions the nation should undertake before the next report.

This has been called the Mobilization of Shame and requires Nongovernmental Organizations and the media from each nation to report on the periodic report when it is issued, and on the meetings with the UN committee when the report is discussed. While at first glance this may seem an ineffective method of enforcing a law, in fact it has worked, most notably in the case of the apartheid regime of South Africa, and in Australia, where all proposed new laws must now be checked to be sure they do not violate the UN human rights treaties ratified by Australia.

The ramifications of U.S. actions, and refusals to act, are already extensive. People from many, many nations now openly state that they hate, and fear, the U.S. Government, and some are demanding that their governments cease having any friendly relations with the U.S. Americans traveling abroad are immediately aware of this hostility, and its cause.

BD: What have you been doing to expose these violations?

AFG: MCLI in 1995 convinced the Berkeley, CA City Council to submit a report to the U.S. State Department on what it was doing to enforce the ICCPR in its Commissions on Youth, Labor, Women, Police Misconduct, along with many other reports MCLI prepared from its files and contacts with other organizations. MCLI then submitted this "shadow" report directly to the UN Human Rights Committee at its meeting in New York, and sent a judge and two lawyers to meet with Committee members informally to discuss omissions in the U.S. official report.

MCLI submitted similar shadow reports and sent representatives to the UN Committee Against Torture meeting in 2000 and to the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination for its 2001 meeting.

In the face of the U.S. Government failing to file its 2d and 3d reports to the Human Rights Committee, and its many reports due to the CERD and CAT committees, and in light of human rights violations under the new PATRIOT Act and many executive orders and actions and inactions, MCLI prepared a massive book of 180 reports of 30 types of human rights violations by the U.S. Government since 9/11. This book, "Challenging U.S. Human Rights Violations Since 9/11," was published by Prometheus Books in March 2005 and the Berkeley City Council voted to submit it to the three UN human rights committees.

As a result, the UN Human Rights Committee emailed MCLI in August 2005, asking MCLI to submit facts on U.S. human rights violations as a result of the PATRIOT Act and in arresting people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in their treatment in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, etc.

MCLI immediately contacted many NGOs with this message and submitted 74 relevant reports (of the 180). MCLI then sent Judge Claudia Morcom of the Wayne Country Circuit Court (ret.) to Geneva to make a presentation on this report to the Committee on Oct. 17, 2005.

When the U.S. finally submitted its combined 2d and 3d reports on Oct. 24, 2005, MCLI immediately obtained a copy and started organizing NGOs to go over the report for inaccuracies and omissions of concern to the Committee. MCLI also started organizing NGOs to submit lists of Issues to the Committee, as it requested, by Dec. 28, 2005.

The Committee has announced it will discuss these issues at its next meeting, in New York, on March 13, 2006. MCLI is therefore planning to send a representative to that meeting. And it is working with many other NGOs to present a large Briefing session with the Committee between March 21 and 23 so that the human rights issues not covered in the U.S. report, including Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, will be brought to the attention of the Committee and the U.S. public.

MCLI also sent a representative to the Paris meeting of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers in June, 2005, and to the convention of the National Lawyers Guild in Portland in Oct. 2005 and to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Convention in San Francisco who raised issues on the importance of all nations submitting complete and accurate reports to the UN human rights committees, and got resolutions adopted. Then an MCLI representative went on a speaking tour, from Yale to the University of Michigan and to several radio and TV interviews and book signings.

MCLI is also presenting Congressmember John Conyers and attorney Leonard Weinglass at a massive public meeting on The Fall of the Bush Empire and the Rise of Human Rights on Feb. 23, 2006, at the King Middle School Auditorium, 1781 Rose Street, Berkeley, CA.

BD: What has the response been from the media, public, UN and the government regarding the violations?

AFG: The response from the major media has been largely to ignore everything connected with the UN, except for criticisms by the Bush Administration and by people concerned about one, small UN unit violating rights in Haiti. However, local media has covered several book readings, and several internet media have picked up on this story.

The public response seems to be growing rapidly, with more calls coming in and more requests for speakers and flyers and books. Scott Camil came across the book in a bookstore, bought a copy, read it and immediately started promoting the book among NGOs. He wrote to us: "I have been an activist for almost 35 years. When people ask me what they can do, I always say that the most important thing is to become educated on the issues and to understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens in our Democracy. … This book is like a gift from the heavens. It provides the citizens with everything they need to understand the law, their rights, the wholesale violation of those laws and rights and the information on what actions can be taken to rectify these crimes against us and the world." He is a founding member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a defendant in the Gainesville 8 Conspiracy case, an executive committee member of Suvanne St. Johns Group Sierra Club, now touring with "Winter Soldier."

The UN response to the refusal of the U.S. Government to file reports under each of the three human rights treaties, and accounts of violations of the rights of prisoners at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc., led the UN Human Rights Commission to appoint a Special Rapporteur on human rights violations in the war on terror, and, after Katrina, to send the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty to the Gulf region to report.

These actions led the U.S. Government finally to file its very tardy reports to the Human Rights and Torture Committees, and then to file a supplemental report dealing with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, which it had earlier said need not be covered in the reports.

BD: Why do you believe the treatment of Katrina victims violates the 14th Amendment equal protection clause?

AFG: Virtually all of the activities described in paragraph 2 as violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also violate the 14th Amendment equal protection clause. In 1868, the Congress and the several states voted to amend the United States Constitution to provide that no state "shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this "equal protection clause" also must be obeyed by the U.S. federal government.

BD: What kind of work has the National Lawyers Guild been doing around this topic?

AFG: At its convention in Portland in October, 2005, the National Lawyers Guild passed two resolutions based on these events. The first calls on all Guild members and friends to study the facts and the law about the Katrina victims (described above), and to notify government officials at every level demanding a new policy for dealing with all future natural catastrophes and to stop all types of violations of human rights. The second calls on Guild members to study the U.S. Report to the UN Human Rights Committee,, to submit critiques of the report to its International Committee, and to attend the UN Committee meeting in New York. Since then the Guild has bee networking with other organizations leading up to the March 2006 meetings in NY.

BD: What did the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty discover while touring New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina?

AFG: The Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty of the Commission on Human Rights made a short, initial report after his mission to the United States (Oct. 23-Nov. 8, 2005) took him to Katrina victims in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Jackson and the Delta region, Mississippi, as well as to immigrant farm workers in Florida and impoverished whites in Appalachia, and homeless in New York City, and Washington, D.C.

Arjun Sengupta found the case of the U.S. "particularly interesting" as "an apparent paradox: as the wealthiest country on earth, with higher per capita income levels than any other country," the U.S. also has one of the highest levels of poverty among the rich industrialized nations. He reported that 37 million lived in poverty in 2004, 45.8 million were without health insurance coverage, and 38.2 million (including 13.9 million children) experienced food instability. These figures include 24.7 percent of African Americans, 21.9 percent of Hispanics, and only 8.6 percent of non-Hispanic Whites.

"If the United States Government designed and implemented the policies according to the human rights standards much of the problem of poverty could be resolved," he said. His final report will be submitted to the Commission in Spring 2006.

BD: What do you hope is the outcome of your work on this issue?

AFG: MCLI hopes that the work around Katrina, and the work with UN human rights committees will lead more and more people in the United States to realize that ratified UN treaties are part of the law of the U.S., that we are all part of the UN system of governance, that UN standards strengthen basic U.S. constitutional law, and that there are things each person can do to stop human rights abuses in the U.S. and by the U.S. all over the world. And MCLI hopes to draw into its work more and more young men and women growing up during U.S. military operations in many nations, and a decline in jobs in unionized industries with job security. MCLI hopes many will follow its proposal for new paths for action to restore democracy and peace to our country.

For more information on the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, visit their website:

Benjamin Dangl is the editor of, a progressive perspective on world events.