WASHINGTON – United States authorities should thoroughly investigate all rights abuses committed during efforts to overturn the November 3, 2020 US presidential election and culminating in the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol building in Washington, DC, Human Rights Watch said today.
In addition to the impeachment trial of former US President Donald Trump, slated to begin on February 9, the government should vigorously pursue criminal investigations into related events, hold those responsible to account, and ensure that abuses are not repeated.
“Impeachment may be one form of political accountability for Trump’s actions, but it is not enough,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US Program executive director at Human Rights Watch. “It neither covers all the people involved nor all of the abuses and crimes that occurred between the presidential election and the attack on the Capitol.”
Trump and many others – including members of his administration, Congress, and law enforcement – engaged in extensive efforts to overturn the will of the people as expressed in the November 3 election, infringing on all Americans’ right to vote and to have their vote respected, Human Rights Watch said. These efforts also led to violations of the rights to life and security of person, and infringed on the right to be free from discrimination. Federal and state authorities have an obligation to conduct thorough and effective criminal investigations of these events and ensure accountability for them.
The Justice Department’s inspector general has opened an investigation, and Senate Judiciary Committee members have signaled their own intention to investigate allegations of attempted interference by Trump and others in the election outcome, including with the right to vote. Federal and state authorities should investigate possible criminal law violations, including Trump’s multiple demands of state officials to alter the election results in Georgia, Human Rights Watch said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has opened a criminal investigation, and charges have been brought against more than 175 people in connection with the attack on the Capitol, which led to deaths and injuries of security personnel. The Defense Department, DC Capitol Police, and the US House of Representatives also have opened investigations into law enforcement responses to the attack. These investigations should be broad in scope, focusing not only on the individuals who stormed the Capitol, but also those who may have colluded with or assisted them by action or omission, including officials’ failure to prepare for or respond effectively to the attack, Human Rights Watch said.
“The investigations underway show that the US government is taking some initial steps toward restoring respect for human rights in the United States,” said Austin-Hillery. “President Biden will need to make accountability for abuses of political rights, including the attack on the Capitol, a priority if he wants his word on democratic values to carry weight domestically and abroad.”
Given the participation of white supremacists and others on the extreme-right in the human rights violations between November 3 and January 6, the US government should address violent extremism in its response. Irrespective of a person’s opinion, acting on beliefs in ways that threaten or do violence to others is unlawful, including such actions as those involved in storming the Capitol or encouraging others to do so. Government failure to protect against foreseeable violence, including when prompted by extremist views, violates international human rights law.
“The violence on January 6 was foreseeable, including by people linked to extreme-right beliefs like white supremacy,” Austin-Hillery said. “The US government can and should address all forms of violent extremism that threaten public safety, including from the extreme right.”
US authorities should also investigate the overly militarized and violent responses to Black and allied activists protesting for racial justice over the summer of 2020, including in Washington, DC. The brutal crackdown on these protests contrasts starkly with the lack of preparation and inadequate response to the predictable attack on the Capitol by white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and members of self-styled anti-government militias, made up primarily of white people. The difference in the responses requires close examination in the context of pervasive racial discrimination by US law enforcement agencies and frequent racist comments by Trump and members of his administration, Human Rights Watch said.
“Congress and the Biden administration should ensure that violent extremists don’t feel they can act with impunity because they are white or often enjoy support from law enforcement, and that no government official can elude accountability for unlawfully trying to subvert the election results,” Austin-Hillery said. “If violations of basic political rights, including the right to be free from racial discrimination, carry no consequence in the United States, then the door is wide open for future violence and abuse.”