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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."
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.
Campaigners also argue that "Big Oil CEOs and politicians like Ron DeSantis must be held accountable for knowingly fueling the climate crisis that heats our oceans and strengthens deadly storms."
As U.S. President Joe Biden plans to visit Florida on Saturday to tour the wreckage from Hurricane Idalia, climate campaigners this week have yet again renewed demands for the Democrat—who is seeking reelection next year—to declare a climate emergency.
"I don't think anybody can deny the impact of the climate crisis anymore," the president said in a Wednesday speech about the hurricane response and wildfire recovery efforts in Maui. "Just look around: historic floods—I mean historic floods; more intense droughts; extreme heat; significant wildfires have caused significant damage like we've never seen before."
Biden suggested during an interview earlier this month that he had "practically" declared a climate emergency—which campaigners forcefully refuted, stressing that actually doing so would unlock various powers to tackle the global crisis.
After the president on Thursday confirmed his upcoming trip to Florida, the youth-led Sunrise Movement wrote on social media that "Biden must declare a climate emergency and do everything he can to prevent future disasters now."
White House Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall told reporters on Thursday that Biden will "visit the areas most impacted" by the storm and has been receiving regular updates from her and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell "on the latest developments with Hurricane Idalia, and also of course with the ongoing recovery operations in Hawaii on the island of Maui," according toCNN.
Since the Category 3 hurricane made landfall in Florida early Wednesday before moving on to Georgia and the Carolinas, multiple groups, including Greenpeace USA and the Center for Popular Democracy, have called for a climate emergency declaration.
Scientists have warned that continuing to heat the planet through human activities like fossil fuel use will lead to increasingly devastating hurricanes—particularly because the global ocean has absorbed most of the warming from greenhouse gases in recent decades.
"We can see climate change fueling hurricanes," Andra Garner, a hurricane expert at Rowan University in New Jersey, toldNPR on Wednesday, explaining how hotter ocean water is tied to more intense storms. "Think of it like getting a coffee in the morning and getting a couple extra shots of caffeine in there."
Along with calls for a climate emergency declaration, demands are also mounting for the fossil fuel industry—and the politicians who support it, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a 2024 GOP presidential candidate—to be held accountable for driving the disasters.
"As we Floridians face the devastation of yet another massive hurricane, we know exactly who is responsible for making these countless disasters exponentially worse: the Big Oil CEOs profiting off the climate crisis and their political allies," CLEO Institute executive director Yoca Arditi-Rocha said Thursday. "Big Oil CEOs and politicians like Ron Desantis must be held accountable for knowingly fueling the climate crisis that heats our oceans and strengthens deadly storms—then leading the fight to strip away resources our state could use to respond."
John Paul Mejia, a Miami native and national spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, shared that "it's hard to see the people and places I love suffering after yet another climate disaster. But the truth is, Florida is standing out as an example of what a world ruled by fossil fuel executives and the politicians they employ looks like."
"By turning down millions of dollars in climate investments while people suffer, Gov. DeSantis has shown he's more willing to shield Big Oil executives from accountability than serve the people of Florida," the campaigner added. "My generation won't forget this and we will do anything in our power to defeat politicians like him."
"It's time to hold Big Oil accountable for the climate disasters they're fueling," declared Jamie Henn of Fossil Free Media, which recently bought billboards in U.S. communities blaming heatwaves on fossil fuel giants. "Big Oil executives are sitting in cushy corner offices making massive profits while people in Florida, Hawaii, and all over the world are losing their homes, businesses, and lives. Finally holding this industry accountable for the damage they're causing has become a major priority for the global climate movement."
As frontline communities and activists seek accountability, including through climate liability lawsuits against oil and gas companies, "the spate of summer disasters has highlighted another potentially looming crisis in the U.S." Inside Climate Newsreported Tuesday. "The federal Disaster Relief Fund, which allocates billions of dollars to help communities recover after a major disaster, is set to run out of money this fall if Congress can't come to an agreement on how to replenish it."
As the outlet detailed:
On Monday, the Biden administration announced nearly $3 billion in funding for hundreds of communities across the U.S. to reduce their vulnerability to climate-fueled extreme weather events. The money, which will come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that Congress passed in 2021, will go toward building more weather-resilient infrastructure and flood mitigation efforts, among other projects.
But that money—though important—is geared toward preventative measures and is separate from FEMA's disaster relief fund, meaning it won't help communities recover from this summer's devastating weather. If the relief fund isn't replenished soon, the agency could be forced into a difficult position, having to choose which disaster recovery efforts to fund and which to postpone.
Climate scientist and activist Peter Kalmus said on Democracy Now! Thursday that "the public just doesn't understand, in my opinion, what a deep emergency we are in. This is the merest beginning of what we're going to see in coming years. And to me, it's absolutely horrifying."
"I don't think people really fully appreciate how irreversible these impacts are," he continued. "We can't just reverse this. It's not like cleaning up trash in a park. How hot we allow this planet to get is how hot it will stay for a very long time. And I feel like climate scientists, including myself, have been being ignored for decades by world leaders. They just don't seem to get this, either."
"I'm glad to hear President Biden finally using his bully pulpit a little bit to try to wake people up that this is real, but he continues to expand fossil fuels at breakneck pace," Kalmus added, pointing to drilling on public lands, the Willow project in Alaska, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Appalachia. "And that's the cause of all of this damage that we're seeing."
"I've got two sons, and it breaks my heart to see the Biden administration continue to expand fossil fuels and take us deeper into this catastrophe, instead of trying to bring us back from this," said the expert, who has called on the president to declare a climate emergency. "He's deeply on the wrong side of history."
"Whether we're in the middle of a heatwave or a winter storm, Texas should be able to keep the lights on," said the congressman.
Motivated by this summer's extreme heat and a devastating winter storm a couple of years ago, Democratic Texas Congressman Greg Casar announced Thursday that he is working on federal legislation to connect the state to national electric grids.
About 90% of the Lone Star State is covered by a grid operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) while the rest of the continental United States is served by the Eastern Interconnection and Western Interconnection, which are divided by the Rocky Mountains.
"The state has long refused to connect its grid in an attempt to avoid federal standards and consumer protections," Casar's office explained in a statement Thursday. "The U.S. Congress has the legal authority to require Texas to connect to the national grids to protect consumers, improve electric reliability nationwide, and safely regulate commerce."
Confirming his plans for a bill requiring the state to connect to national grids, Casar declared that "whether we're in the middle of a heatwave or a winter storm, Texas should be able to keep the lights on. This legislation will help consumers, improve the economy, generate more clean power, and save lives."
Texas' grid garnered national attention when it failed in February 2021, during Winter Storm Uri. The Texas Department of State Health Services put the official death toll at 246, but BuzzFeed Newsestimated the cold conditions and power outages may have killed 700 people.
In addition to leaving millions of people without electricity or water, the 2021 winter weather in the state potentially caused $100 billion in economic damages, according to research from a Texas-based team published in IOPscience earlier this year.
Casar's office pointed to a report that showed "each additional gigawatt of transmission tied between the Texas power grid and the Southeastern U.S. could have saved nearly $1 billion, while keeping the heat on for hundreds of thousands of Texans."
Two years later, "the Texas power grid survived another close call" last week, barely avoiding rolling blackouts, according toTexas Public Radio. That came amid unprecedented extreme heat that scientists say is tied to humanity's continued use of climate-wrecking fossil fuels.
In addition to pushing for legislation to connect Texas to national grids, Casar has joined with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to fight for the Connecting Hard-to-Reach Areas With Renewably Generated Energy (CHARGE) Act, which would establish infrastructure needed to boost reliability, cut costs, and spark clean energy innovation.
"As the climate crisis worsens, we must do everything we can to increase grid reliability across the country. That's why we must pass the CHARGE Act," Casar said when they introduced the bill last month. "Every single family should be able to rely on their utilities."
"President Biden should have never appointed an investment banker to chair an advisory council for the nation's infrastructure," said one advocate.
An under-the-radar report by U.S. President Joe Biden's National Infrastructure Advisory Council should not go unnoticed, said the national watchdog Food & Water Watch on Thursday, as buried in the document is a call for the privatization of U.S. water systems, which progressive lawmakers and civil society groups have long opposed.
On page 15 of the 38-page report, the advisory council said the federal government should "remove barriers to privatization, concessions, and other nontraditional models of funding community water systems in conjunction with each state's development of best practice."
Food & Water Watch (FWW) suggested that the recommendation goes hand in hand with the panel chairmanship of Adebayo Ogunlesi, who is the chairman and CEO of Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP).
GIP is "an infrastructure investment bank with an estimated $100 billion in assets under management that targets energy, transportation, digital, and water infrastructure," said FWW, making the takeover of public water and wastewater utilities by a private corporation—often under the guise of improving aging systems and lowering costs—financially beneficial for the bank.
"Instead of relying on Wall Street advisers, President Biden should support policies that will truly help communities."
Mary Grant, Public Water for All campaign director at FWW, called the recommendation "a terrible idea."
"President Biden should have never appointed an investment banker to chair an advisory council for the nation's infrastructure," said Grant. "Wall Street wants to take control of the nation's public water systems to wring profits from communities that are already struggling with unaffordable water bills and toxic water."
FWW has analyzed water privatization schemes for years, finding that they it often leave communities "with higher water bills, worse service, job losses, and little control to fix these problems."
A 2018 report by the group titledAmerica's Secret Water Crisisfound that out of 11 privatized water utilities across the U.S., all but one refused to provide data about shutoffs for nonpayment. The group's 2011 brief Water = Lifeshowed that low-income households are disproportionately affected by water price hikes by private owners, as privatization turns a resource recognized by the United Nations as an "essential human right" into a commodity.
"Privatization would deepen the nation's water crises, leading to higher water bills and less accountable and transparent services," said Grant. "Privately owned water systems charge 59% more than local government systems, and private ownership is the single largest factor associated with higher water bills—more than aging infrastructure or drought."
Grant noted that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 was "a step forward" as it invested $55 billion to expand water infrastructure, but pointed out that "it provided only about 7% of the identified needs of our water systems."
"Instead of relying on Wall Street advisers, President Biden should support policies that will truly help communities by asking Congress to pass the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability (WATER) Act (H.R. 1729, S. 938)," she added.
Introduced in 2021 by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) in the U.S. House and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Senate, the WATER Act would expand funding to small, rural, and Indigenous communities; create a water trust fund; fund projects to eliminate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, contamination; and require the Environmental Protection Agency to analyze water affordability, shutoffs, and civil rights violations by water utilities, among other steps to improve public water access.
"The WATER Act," said Grant, "would fully restore the federal commitment to safe water by providing a permanent source of federal funding at the level that our water and wastewater systems need to ensure safe, clean, and affordable public water for all."