The Death Penalty Information Center, supported by the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany, launched a new project on Human Rights and the U.S. Death Penalty on November 4, 2022, with a live-streamed panel discussion at the German embassy in Washington, D.C. The recorded event, which featured noted experts and was attended by scholars, advocates, and members of the world diplomatic corps, was the first in a series of webinars that will spotlight human rights issues in the use and implementation of the U.S. death penalty.

The program reframed the discussion of capital punishment from a public safety context to whether its existence and practice is incompatible with fundamental notions of human rights. Legal historian and law professor John Bessler, author of numerous books on capital punishment, including the soon-to-be-released The Death Penalty’s Denial of Fundamental Human Rights, addressed whether the death penalty, though permitted to a limited degree in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has become a form of punishment that, by its very nature, is fundamentally inconsistent with our evolving understanding of human decency and human rights.

Explaining the expanded understanding of torture from the physical infliction of excruciating pain to including psychological torture and death threats, Bessler said, “We need to be thinking about re-characterizing the death penalty as an act of torture.” The death penalty, he said, is “essentially a series of death threats. … [A] capital charging decision, that really is just a threat of death. You think about a death sentence, that’s just even a more credible threat of death. … [W]hen we think about the death penalty, we need to be thinking about the use of these kinds of state sanctioned or state sponsored death threats ….”

Nathalie Greenfield, a human rights lawyer and fellow at the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide who has represented women on death row in the United States, Tanzania, and Malawi, discussed the dehumanizing treatment of women facing capital sanctions in the United States, both in systemic failures to prevent and redress gender violence to which virtually all women facing the death penalty in the U.S. have been exposed and in the use of gender stereotyped arguments in seeking the death penalty. “Prosecutors are routinely engaging in these narratives that are really rooted in gender stereotyping,” Greenfield said, “and women are ultimately executed after trials that are riddled with this kind of information.”

Diann Rust-Tierney, the Robert F. Drinan 2021-2022 Visiting Professor for Human Rights at the Georgetown University Law Center’s Human Rights Institute, explored why the United States has failed to subject the racial issues in the U.S. death penalty to the same human rights analysis applied to the practices of other countries. “The death penalty has always been a human rights violation and it’s something that our human rights allies around the world have always known,” Rust-Tierney said. “[W]hen you trace the history of the death penalty and its use today, you see that it was always used primarily to delineate the relative worth of lives based on race and skin color.”

Reviewing the evolution of the death penalty from the slave statutes of the Civil War era to its racially disparate application today, Rust-Tierney argued, “The death penalty is demonstrably a human rights violation…. The gore and gut-wrenching nature of the beast was always meant to be a feature. It’s not a bug. And while the death penalty has been cloaked as a measure of accountability, or response to criminal activity and public safety, it’s a practice that has always been practiced in a capricious and biased way.”

DPIC’s human rights project grew out of discussions with staff members of the German embassy. DPIC presented the second event in the series, a webinar on Race, Human Rights, and the U.S. Death Penalty, on November 7, 2022, with two additional webinars to follow.

Axel Dittmann, Deputy Head of Mission for the German Embassy in the U.S., opened the embassy event with historical context. He recounted that Germany abolished the death penalty in its 1949 constitution, explaining that it was the U.S. “that helped Germany to build a constitution” based on the “principles of human dignity and human rights.” Discussing a pending United Nation’s resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty, Dittmann stated that “Europe and Australia together hope for some kind of support from the United States. By not opposing the resolution, the Biden administration could clearly show its position and ambition in this field. It would be another good sign for our transatlantic community of combined values and support for human rights.”

Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Claire Fitzgibbon, who heads the Political, Security, and Development Section of the EU Delegation to the U.S., called the abolition of capital punishment “the EU’s first priority in advancing human rights in the United States.” The European Union, she said, “will continue to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty for as long as it takes.”

Fitzgibbon noted that “one of the biggest differences between the U.S. and the EU’s interpretation of the death penalty is that we see it as a human rights issue, while the U.S. primarily sees capital punishment as a criminal law issue.” The DPIC webinar series, she said “will be really important in highlighting how maintaining the death penalty perpetuates a wide range of human rights abuses.”

DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham, quarantined from travel by COVID precautions, provided pre-recorded remarks prior to the panel discussion. “As you will hear throughout this series,” Dunham said, “the mere existence of capital punishment in the U.S. legitimizes other extreme practices in the administration of this nation’s criminal laws and it emboldens more repressive nations to engage in even graver human rights abuses. The U.S. death penalty is not just a human rights issue in itself, it also impedes efforts by both the United States and by our friends and allies alike to respect human dignity, protect basic social, economic, and political rights, and promote the values of a free and open democratic society.”

“We hope today’s session will jumpstart a discussion on these important issue,” Dunham said.

DPIC Deputy Director Ngozi Ndulue moderated the embassy event.


To view a video of the pan­el dis­cus­sion, click here.