ACLU Report on International Implications of Capital Punishment in the U.S.

A new report by the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project discusses the United States’ position on the death penalty in the face of international concerns regarding this practice. The report, How the Death Penalty Weakens U.S. International Interests, notes that many other nations are moving toward abolition of capital punishment and are critical of specific aspects of the death penalty in the U.S. Among the topics featured in this resource are the ongoing international efforts to abolish the death penalty, foreign intervention in U.S. capital cases, international extradition cases involving the death penalty, rulings by the International Court of Justice, and how the death penalty has affected America’s war on terror. (ACLU Report: How the Death Penalty Weakens U.S. International Interests, December 2004). See Resources.

The American Prospect Issues Special Report on U.S. Human Rights

The latest edition of The American Prospect features a series of articles by prominent writers and human rights leaders regarding the effect of the international movement for human rights on the U.S. Two of the articles highlight U.S. death penalty policies. Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh points out the conflict between the U.S.’s efforts to support international human rights and our domestic practices such as the use of the juvenile death penalty. “In my view, by far the most dangerous and destructive form of American exceptionalism is the assertation of double standards. For by embracing double standards, the United States invariably ends up not on the higher rung but on the lower rung with horrid bedfellows - for example, such countries as Iran, Nigeria, and Saudia Arabia, the only other nations that have not in practice either abolished or declared a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders.”
A second article, Criminal Justice and the Erosion of Rights by human rights scholar Deborah Pearlstein, examines the impact of legislation such as the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and The PATRIOT Act on capital cases. Pearlstein notes, “While human-rights observers have rightly focused on terrorism-related developments in the U.S. criminal justice system, the trend toward limited procedural protections for defendants and a shrinking judicial role well predates the September 11 attacks. Indeed, security has been a central justification for rights-limiting changes in the criminal-justice system for decades.” Among the other authors in the series are Anthony Lewis, John Shattuck, Gay McDougall, Cass Sunstein, Gara LaMarche, and Mary Robinson. (The American Prospect, October 2004) See Juvenile Death Penalty and Federal Death Penalty.

Iran Poised to End Juvenile Death Penalty

According to an Iranian justice department spokesperson, the Iranian Parliament is expected to approve legislation that would end the death penalty for offenders under the age of 18. The measure would also prohibit lashings for those under 18. Under pressure from the European Union to reform its human rights record, Iran has had no recorded stonings since late 2002, and the parliament has enacted laws banning torture and the upholding of citizens’ rights. (AFP, October 26, 2004). The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard the case of Roper v. Simmons that will determine the constitutionality of executing juvenile offenders in the U.S.

Justice O’Connor Notes Importance of International Law

During a recent speech at Georgetown Law School, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor emphasized the growing importance of international law in U.S. courts, saying judges would be negligent if they disregarded its importance in a post-September 11th world of heightened tensions. O’Connor said the Supreme Court is taking cases that demand a better understanding of foreign legal systems, noting, “International law is no longer a specialty. … It is vital if judges are to faithfully discharge their duties. Since September 11, 2001, we’re reminded some nations don’t have the rule of law or (know) that it’s the key to liberty.” She stated that international law is “a help in our search for a more peaceful world.” (Associated Press, October 27, 2004) See Supreme Court.

Many African Nations Abandoning Death Penalty

During the past 15 years, the number of African nations abandoning capital punishment has risen from one to 10, and another 10 nations have abolished the death penalty in practice according to a recent tally by Amnesty International. As this trend toward abolishing the death penalty continues, fewer Africans than ever are being executed by their governments. The anti-capital punishment movement has been especially powerful in West Africa, where the number of countries in the Economic Community of West African States that have either banned executions or halted them has risen to 10. Southern Africa, where the death penalty is now outlawed in five countries and at least two additional nations have abandoned it in practice, has also shifted towards ending capital punishment. Among the issues shaping Africa’s attitude toward capital punishments are innocence, the impact this punishment has on those who carry out executions, and doubts about deterrence. (New York Times, October 20, 2004).

Brutalization Effect: Children Die Imitating Recent Execution in India

In the two weeks since India’s first hanging in 13 years, two children have died and a third young boy was nearly killed as a result of imitating the highly publicized execution. A 14-year-old boy died after he tied one end of a rope around his neck and swung the other end on a ceiling fan in his home to re-enact the execution. The boy’s father said that his son was very curious about the nation’s first execution and had closely followed the days leading up to it by watching news accounts. The second child to die, a 12-year-old girl from West Bengal, accidentally killed herself when she tried to demonstrate for her younger brother how the execution was conducted. A third 10-year-old West Bengal victim nearly died as he and his friends acted out the execution, taking roles as the defendant, the hangman, a doctor, and the prison warden. (Reuters, August 25, 2004) See Deterrence.

European Union Urges Iraq Not to Reinstate Death Penalty

European Union foreign ministers have urged Iraq’s interim government not to reinstate capital punishment as it continues to develop the nation’s justice system. “The European Union reconfirms its opposition to the death penalty in all cases,” the ministers said in a draft statement to Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari. “The message has been very clear … We have this policy, and we will maintain this policy,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot at a news conference with Zebari. The European Union has a long-standing policy against capital punishment, and all 25 member nations have abandoned the practice. Although the death penalty was suspended in Iraq during the U.S.-led occupation, some senior-level Iraqi politicians have publicly stated that they intend to reinstate the death penalty for certain crimes now that control of the government has been given back to the Iraqi people. The discussion about capital punishment took place as Zebari, himself an opponent of capital punishment, met with European Union leaders to discuss EU support for rebuilding efforts in Iraq. He noted that the nation is facing an ever-deteriorating security situation and that funding from the EU is essential to organizing upcoming elections. (Reuters, July 12, 2004)

U.S. May Be Wavering on Respecting Extradition Conditions from Other Countries

The U.S. Justice Department indicated that it may no longer feel bound by extradition orders from other countries against the seeking of the death penalty in the U.S., a significant policy shift that experts feel could hinder international relations. In a preliminary case memo by federal District Court Judge Jack Weinstein, it was noted that a federal prosecutor had stated that officials in Washington believe a Dominican judge’s order to not seek the death penalty for an extradited man is “not binding.” Weinstein’s memo stated that he believes the U.S. should honor the extradition order to not seek a capital conviction, as it has in all previous orders issued by extraditing nations. Although the Justice Department later announced that it would not seek the death penalty against the defendant, Weinstein has insisted that federal prosecutors provide further explanation of their assertion. A Justice Department spokeswoman said that “as a matter of procedure” all federal death penalty decisions are reviewed by department officials in Washington and that “in this specific case” officials decided not to seek the death penalty. Hofstra University law professor Eric Freedman noted: “If the countries of the world are to be left in doubt on this point, I would expect you are not going to see extraditions until that doubt is removed.” (New York Times, June 19, 2004)

Death Penalty Fading Away in Europe and Central Asia

In a unanimous vote that will soon add their nation to a lengthy list of countries around the world that have either halted executions or abandoned capital punishment altogether, the lower house of Tajikistan’s Parliament has adopted a moratorium on the death penalty. Passage by the upper house and the signature of the President are reportedly assured. The Tajik moratorium will leave Uzbekistan as the only republic in Central Asia that continues to carry out executions. Experts on Central Asia believe that pressure from leaders of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union, which has the abolition of the death penalty as one of the main elements of its foreign policy in relations with third countries, has facilitated much of the shift toward abolition in this region. “The move of Tajikistan is part of a wider trend within the OSCE region,” said Anna Crawford, a Warsaw-based human rights officer for the OSCE. “Over the past years we’ve gradually seen the OSCE states introducing moratoriums and moving to full abolition of the death penalty. There are 55 participating states in the OSCE region. And following this move of Tajikistan, there are now only three states that carry out executions in the OSCE region: Belarus, the United States of America, and Uzbekistan.” Last year, Tajikistan reduced the scope of its death penalty by limiting the number of crimes punishable by death from 15 to five and revoking its use against women and minors. In April, Tajikistan’s President Imomali Rakhmonov called for a moratorium to be put into place, noting through a representative to parliament that courts in the nation are already abiding by a de facto moratorium. (RFE/RL News, June 3, 2004)

Insistence on the Death Penalty May Interfere with trial for Saddam Hussein

Great Britain may refuse to hand over evidence of Saddam Hussein’s crimes to Iraqi prosecutors or permit government staff to testify against the former dictator because of the nation’s opposition to the death penalty. Despite human rights objections from British officials who helped establish the special tribunal that will try Hussein and other senior members of his regime, Iraqis have insisted that capital punishment remain a sentencing option for some crimes. Coalition forces have suspended the death penalty during their occupation of Iraq, but it is anticipated that capital punishment will be reinstated following the return of power to the Iraqi people at the end of June, which is prior to Hussein’s tribunal. “The U.K. government has made it clear that it opposes the use of the death penalty. It will be up to the new Iraqi government to determine whether this punishment will be reinstated following the transfer of authority. After the transfer of power to the new Iraqi government, we will continue to lobby against the death penalty,” said British Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell. ( News, May 23, 2004)

Abolition of the Death Penalty Gaining Ground in Africa

During the past 10 years, most Commonwealth African countries have moved toward abolishing the death penalty and today almost half of these countries have abandoned the practice according to Amnesty International. Government leaders from around the continent recently met in Entebbe, Uganda, for a two-day summit to discuss capital punishment. Five Southern African Development Countries have abolished capital punishment, and the number of countries ending the death penalty in the Economic Community of West Aftican States region and Mauritania jumped from one to 10 in just one decade. In addition, Presidents from several nations, including Zambia, Nigeria, and Kenya, have taken significant steps toward commuting death sentences and working toward abolition. “Only Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone have carried out executions in the last decade. Amnesty International welcomes positive action across Africa to abolish capital punishment,” noted Amnesty International in a statement. “Worldwide, an average of three countries a year abolishes capital punishment.” (Mail & Guardian Online, May 11, 2004)

Amnesty International Issues Latest Report on Worldwide Executions

According to Amnesty International’s latest report on executions around the world, China, Iran, the United States, and Vietnam accounted for 84% of the 1,146 known executions carried out in 21 nations in 2003. China carried out at least 726 executions, Iran executed 108 people, the United States carried out 65 executions, and Viet Nam reported 64 executions last year. Among those executed in 2003 were two juvenile offenders, 1 in China and 1 in the United States. The report noted that 77 countries around the world have abolished the death penalty, including Samoa and Bhutan in 2003. Amnesty International shared its findings with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which is currently in session in Geneva, and asked the Commission to support a resolution calling on all nations to implement a moratorium on executions. A similar measure was passed in 2003. (Amnesty International Press Release, April 6, 2004).

China reconsiders Broad Use of Death Penalty

The Chinese government is planning to implement judicial reforms that could sharply reduce its use of the death penalty. China will restrict the use of capital punishment by requiring its highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, to review all death penalty cases before executions are carried out. Currently, the high court reviews only a minority of such cases, allowing the provincial courts that hand down death sentences to review their own judgments. “Criticism of the legal system in society is rising. The Chinese Communist Party, as a ruling party that attaches importance to stability, knows that if it doesn’t reform the judicial system, it would be bad for stability,” said Liu Renwen, a scholar of law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. China, which does not release statistics on death sentences or executions, has long been criticized for its high number of executions. Based on state-run media reports, Amnesty International estimated that China conducted 1,060 executions in 2002 and 2,468 executions in 2001. A recent book about the Chinese leadership cited internal party documents when it reported that about 15,000 executions took place every year between 1998 and 2001. Occasional cases of innocent people who have been exonerated from China’s death row have shaken the general public’s confidence in China’s death penalty system. (Washington Post, January 18, 2004)

Samoa to End the Death Penalty

The Pacific island of Samoa has begun formal measures to abolish the death penalty. Samoa has not conducted an execution in more than 50 years, and death sentences that are still delivered by judges are always commuted to life imprisonment. As he introduced the statute to abolish the death penalty, Prime Minister Sailele Malielegaoi told parliament that the death penalty should not be on the law books if it is not going to be carried out. (ONE News and AAP, January 16, 2004)