Human rights are legislatively protected in the United States at the Federal level by the Constitution and other federal legislation.
The Constitution recognises a number of inalienable human rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, the right to keep and bear arms, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to a fair and speedy trial by jury.
The original text of Constitution of the United States (1788) contained eg: the right to trial by jury (Article III, s 2).
The Constitution has been amended to include additional rights and freedoms. for example:
In addition, the US Supreme Court has identified and implied into the Constitution fundamental rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution, such as the presumption of innocence in a criminal trial and freedom of movement.
Other Federal laws protect individuals from unlawful discrimination
Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub.L. 88–352, 78 Stat. 241)
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended) is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public.
See also the USC Title 42, Chapters 20-21F
For more detailed information on US federal legislative research, see the Federal Legislation tab on the US Research Guide.
CASES IN FEDERAL & STATE COURTS
Use Westlaw to either search or browse for cases.
1. Select Cases from the main Browse menu on the Westlaw homepage.
2. Click on All Federal in the top menu bar, and tick All States, then save. You are now searching Federal and State cases.
3. Select Advanced (next to the orange magnifying glass icon)
4. For more relevant results, type your topic into the Synopsis / Digest field, using the boolean operators on the Advanced Search page eg: ["cruel and unusual punishment" & rights & "international law")]. The results can be narrowed by federal, state, jurisdiction, court, date etc, and sorted by relevance, date, most cited and most used.
1. Select Key Numbers from the main Browse menu on the Westlaw homepage.
2. Use eg: the Civil Rights key (#78) or Constitutional Law key (#92) and keep scrolling and using the + signs to open up more detailed topics, which will then link to cases on the specific topic. The results can be narrowed by federal, state, jurisdiction, court, date etc, and sorted by relevance, date, most cited and most used.
OR use the United States Code Annotated (USCA) - see the Federal Human Rights Legislative Framework box on this page.
For more detailed information on US caselaw research, see the Case Law tab on the US Research Guide.
To find up to date commentary, cases and legislation on US human rights law, we recommend using American Jurisprudence 2nd on Westlaw (database identifier: AMJUR) - an encyclopedic statement of American law arranged alphabetically by topic.
To get to American Jurisprudence from the Westlaw Homepage:
1. navigate to:
2. You can then either browse through the content using the + signs to get increasingly specific until you get to a hyperlink to the full text commentary, or click on a heading and search within it, or use the search box at the top of the screen to search the content of the selected category.
3. Here you will find commentary, cases and links to the relevant legislation in the US Code.
Appeals from decisions of the State complaint bodies are to State courts.
The human / civil rights legislation in each US State varies with regard to legislation titles, the framework and what rights are protected. The two easiest ways to find relevant legislation are presented below:
1. Use FindLaw's State Civil Rights Offices webpage to link to each State's government human / civil rights body.These will list and link to the relevant legislation and the process for dealing with complaints of breaches of the legislation, and in some cases links to relevant Commission and judicial decisions.
2. Use the 50 State Statutory Surveys of civil rights on Westlaw (UniMelb staff & student access). This provides commentary, and not only lists all the relevant statutes and the complaint bodies, but usefully links to relevant cases on each provision of the statute. To get to this database:
For more detailed information on US state legislative research, see the State Legislation tab on the US Research Guide.
The Inter-American system for the protection of human rights was created with the adoption of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man in 1948, under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS comprises 35 Member States, including the US. All Member States must comply with the rights contained in the American Declaration or may be taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The United States is a party to some of the Inter-American human rights treaties, but has not ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, and is thus not subject to the contentious jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights - that is, it cannot be a party to a case in the Court.
See more on the Inter-American human rights system under the Regional tab in this Guide.
In general, treaties are considered in the US to be self-executing, requiring no further legislative action to become part of US domestic law. With regard to treaties that recognise or create individual rights, there are self-executing and non-self-executing treaties. Non-self-executing treaties require legislative action to execute the treaty before it can apply to US law. With regard to the three core human rights treaties ratified by the US, the US has has declared that none are self-executing, and has made multiple reservations that limit the scope of treaties, so as not to supersede the rights protected in the U.S. Constitution.
REPORTS TO AND BY THE UN
The US is required to submit periodic reports to the UN on its implementation of each of the core UN human rights treaties it has ratified. The US Reports to the United Nations can be found on:
The UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States, undertaken by the UN Human Rights Council. It involves review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years. Review under the UPR does not depend on a country being a party to a particular human rights treaty. United States Reports can be viewed on the Documents database.
The United States Country Report includes information on the latest Universal Periodic Review, and the status of the country in relation to UN Charter based bodies and Treaty bodies.
The UN Universal Human Rights Index provides access to country-specific human rights information emanating from international human rights mechanisms in the United Nations system: the Treaty Bodies, the Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
CIVIL SOCIETY REPORTS
In the latest Rule of Law Index from the World Justice Project, the United States ranked 26th out of 102 countries for its adherence to protection of fundamental human rights. See the United States statistics on the Rule of Law website.
The factors taken into account in assessing the United States's human rights rank are those established under the Universal Declaration :
See the full Rule of Law Index for all countries here.
Brief timeline of US human rights from the Advocates for Human Rights
Brief chronology of the history of federal human rights legislation in the US from Humanrights.gov.
The United States and Modern Human Rights: A Brief History from the Advocates for Human Rights