Sunday, January 1, 2017
In his recent New Yorker article titled "The Growing Gap Between The U.S. and the International Anti-Death Penalty Consensus," Lincoln Caplan examines the recent vote by the U.S. against the U.N. resolution calling for an international moratorium on the death penalty. He begins:
Last week, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution calling for a worldwide “moratorium on the use of the death penalty”—the sixth that the U.N. has approved in the past decade. Each one has gained the support of more of the organization’s members. The latest vote was a hundred and seventeen countries in favor to forty against. (Thirty-one abstained, and five did not vote.) In addition to a call for a halt to executions worldwide, the resolution urges countries that maintain the death penalty to increasingly restrict its imposition and to apply international laws that protect the rights of those facing the penalty. The rights include that a death sentence may be imposed only for the “most serious crimes,” defined as intentional crimes that have “lethal or other extremely grave consequences,” and that execution be carried out only after “a final judgment rendered by a competent court,” following a legal process that insures a fair trial and that provides access to appeal to a higher court and the opportunity to seek a pardon or a commutation of the sentence.
At the General Assembly, the United States cast one of the nay votes. Stefanie Amadeo, the deputy representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council,explained the country’s position, which is basically unchanged since the U.S. opposed the first resolution against the death penalty, in 2007: “The ultimate decision regarding these issues must be addressed through the domestic democratic processes of individual Member States and be consistent with their obligations under international law,” which does not prohibit capital punishment. The position reflects the American reality of supporting the death penalty in principle, but increasingly outlawing it in practice. As Jeffrey Toobin reportedrecently, the U.S. maintains the death penalty under federal and military law and under the laws of thirty-one states—even though only five states conducted executions in 2016 and executed only twenty people in total, the lowest number in twenty-five years.
The U.S. stresses the importance of observing global norms. “Just as the United States is committed to complying with its international obligations,” Amadeo said, “we strongly urge other countries that employ the death penalty to do so only in full compliance with their international obligations.” Meanwhile, in the past forty years, the U.S. Supreme Court has increasingly sought to restrict the application of the death penalty to the worst of the worst offenders—first, to people who commit the most heinous murders and, then, only to adults who commit them, excluding youth under the age of eighteen. In addition, it generally takes a decade or more for a state to carry out an execution because of challenges to a death sentence allowed under due process of law.
Among the states with the death penalty, twelve have not carried out an execution for a decade or more, and another five have not executed anyone for at least five years. In California, where the last execution was in 2006, there were seven hundred and fifty people on death row as of December 2nd. Rather than being executed (the state has executed only thirteen people since 1978) it is much more likely that a death-row inmate will die as a result of natural causes or suicide.
Roger Hood, an emeritus professor at Oxford, and Carolyn Hoyle, who directs Oxford’s Centre for Criminology, last year published the fifth edition of “The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective.” Their book documents the many ways that people are sentenced to death in violation of international law—for drug-trafficking, for example, rather than for “the most serious crimes,” in unfair proceedings and with no opportunity to ask for clemency, and while imprisoned in terrible conditions. These and other realities, they write, are moving “the debate about capital punishment beyond the view that each nation has, if it wishes, the sovereign right to retain the death penalty” to persuading “countries that retain the death penalty that it inevitably, and however administered, violates universally accepted human rights.” Countries that employ the death penalty and insist that they are abiding by international law, including the U.S., decline to join in making the most important international commitment about the penalty, which is to reject it as a violation of human rights.