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International Perspectives on the Death Penalty

Review by Julia Lutsky

The United States is finding itself increasingly isolated by its intransigence with respect to the death penalty. At a time when the rest of the world is moving toward eradication of this barbaric practice, the United States almost alone of all nations is moving to increase its application. According to the report, International Perspectives on the Death Penalty: A Costly Isolation for the U.S. issued by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) in October of last year, "during the recent visit Mary Robinson, the UN [Human Rights] High Commissioner, even China, "the world's foremost executioner for years, committed itself to monitor human rights within its own borders and reported a sharp drop in ... executions."

Western Europe has abolished the death penalty entirely, the 40 nation Council of Europe has called for its banning, the UN Commission on Human Rights voted a moratorium on it last year, and Pope John, when he visited the United States last year, "was unequivocal, 'I renew the appeal I made [previously] for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary." The number of confirmed judicial executions carried out throughout the world dropped from 4,272 in 1996 to 1,625 in 1998. Of those in 1998, 68 were carried out in the United States.

Of the several international covenants concerning human rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the American Convention on Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (the Race Convention), the United States has ratified the ICCPR, with stringent restrictions on its application, and the Race Convention.

Specifically, the report cites five areas of concern to the international community: "the execution of juvenile offenders, the execution of those suffering from mental retardation or severe mental illness; the execution of foreign nationals who were not informed of their rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; the arbitrary application of the death penalty and the related problem of racial bias and the length of time that death row inmates spend in extreme isolation and deprivation between sentencing and execution." In each of the areas the United States has acted in violation of international norms and has defended itself by citing specific exceptions it has made to the ICCPR. "The overall US response to ... criticism is to ignore it." Particularly egregious to the international community is the attitude toward foreign nationals: "international law, even when it is ratified by the US, is often disdained, particularly by state governments. As ... the California Attorney General's office said, 'Californians elect their legislators and their governor to write the laws ... and they should not have to abdicate that authority to foreign treaties approved by someone in Washington.'" Howard Safir, New York City's Police Commissioner, when reminded of the Vienna Convention, commented, "Oh, right, that['s a] treaty we're not enforcing." Such an attitude, obviously, leaves US nationals at risk when they travel to other countries.

The report was written by Richard C. Deiter, Executive Director of the DPIC and is available for $6/copy from their offices at 1320 18th Street NW, 5th floor, Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 293-6970. The executive summary is available on DPIC's web site at

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