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U.S. pressured to end death penalty

Sixty-eight people were legally executed in the United States last year. That number was third highest in the world, behind China (1,067) and Congo (100).

More people were executed in the United States than in countries such as Iran (66), Saudi Arabia (29), Vietnam (18), Afghanistan (10), Cuba (5), Syria (1) or the Russian Federation (1).

More telling even than the unseemly company we keep when it comes to state executions is the fact that the number of countries that have abandoned the death penalty, either by law or de facto, reached an all-time high of 105 in 1998.

In 1999, the number of executions in the United States is predicted to reach 100.

While the rest of the world is moving steadily toward a repudiation of capital punishment, the United States keeps marching more determinedly in the other direction.

The rest of the world is becoming so repulsed by the trend here that other countries are ready to risk the wrath of the United States. The European Union, which has banned the death penalty, is planning to introduce a motion in the United Nations General Assembly, most likely in November, seeking a global moratorium on capital punishment.

The resolution would probably resemble one passed in April by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which states, “The abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and to the progressive development of human rights.”

Perhaps that language is too hazy for the advocates of the death penalty, now allowed by 38 states in the United States.

But what is accepted in a rather unremarkable way here is seen as barbaric elsewhere. Not only do we keep company with some of the world’s worst human rights violators when it comes to the death penalty, but according to the Death Penalty Information Center, the United States “has become the most flagrant transgressor of the international ban on executing juvenile offenders.”

The prohibition against imposing the death penalty for crimes committed by those below 18 years of age is contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights. The United States has simply claimed exemption to the relevant death-penalty provisions of the treaties it has signed. Since 1973 in the United States, more than 180 juveniles have been sentenced to death and states have carried out 13 executions. Ten of the 132 have occurred in the 1990s, including seven in Texas.

By most international standards, execution of mentally retarded people is banned. But those standards are ignored in the United States. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, “at least 34 individuals with identified mental retardation have been executed,” about 6 percent of all executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Washington-based center also charges that the United States ignores the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations when it executes foreign nationals without informing suspects of their rights to consult with officials and seek counsel from their own countries. In a number of well-documented cases, the United States ignored pleas from other countries and the ruling of international courts to delay executions. Instead, in several cases, the executions were speeded up.

In addition to charges of violating treaties, the United States exposed itself to further criticism for eroding diplomatic relations and diminishing the authority of international courts. It will be interesting to see how the United States deflects the growing consensus and criticism from some of its closest and oldest allies, those whose cooperation we have sought to give international heft to so many of our recent military adventures.

It might make for good sound bite bluster for politicians to be defiant of international consensus and international courts. But it will be of no small consequence that we continue to excuse ourselves from treaties, while expecting the highest degree of compliance from others.

David Cole, a constitutional law expert, made the point in an article in Legal Times: "When it comes to Cuba’s record on human rights, Japan’s trade practices or Iraq’s compliance with treaties on chemical weapons, the United States is a staunch proponent of international law. But when the tables are turned and we’re accused of violating international law, we couldn’t care less. Nowhere is this more apparent than with respect to the death penalty."

If the United States persists in imposing the death penalty at an increasing rate each year, it will only place greater distance between itself and some of its most loyal allies. This country will continue to fall outside the majority of Western industrialized nations that have abolished such sentences.

The increasing isolation will be accompanied by an erosion of U.S. credibility in other human rights issues and of its integrity and authority as a world leader.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999