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Updated 06/22/2006

Fighting Impunity for Foreign Human Rights Abusers in the United States

According to Amnesty International, the U.S. government acknowledges that as many as 1,000 suspected torturers currently live within the country, and at least 150 human rights abusers have been identified. Some came to this country because of their friendly ties to the U.S. government; others slipped in among waves of refugees fleeing war-torn countries or simply received a tourist visa from an American consul unaware of the applicant’s brutal background. Regardless of how they came to the United States, they live in this country free from punishment for the crimes they committed.  

Even worse, many become a part of the same immigrant communities as their former victims. Since the late 1990s there have been numerous reports of torture survivors who obtained asylum in the United States only to make the shocking discovery that those responsible for their abuse had become their neighbors.

There are, however, tools to fight impunity for foreign human rights abusers who have found safe haven in the United States. Under U.S. law, the government can initiate criminal prosecution against alleged human rights abusers, and citizens can file lawsuits in civil courts. The U.S. government also has the power to deport certain human rights violators. The fight against impunity for human rights abusers is important not only because it helps victims to obtain justice but because this freedom from punishment is one of the biggest obstacles to the promotion and consolidation of democracy, especially in countries that have experienced periods of state-sponsored terror.

Several nonprofit groups, including the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability,  work to prevent the United States from becoming a haven for human rights abusers by pursuing legal sanctions in U.S. courts on behalf of survivors. Read more about fighting impunity in U.S. courts.

The U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement heads up the effort to identify, locate and deport alleged human rights abusers who have found a home in the United States. Congress is also considering changes to immigration law that would enable stricter enforcement. Some, however, criticize the government for not doing enough. Read more about fighting impunity through immigration policy.

In April 2002 Amnesty International released an in-depth report entitled “United States of America: A Safe Haven for Torturers.” Download the report, in PDF format.