The Death Penalty Information Centersupported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Federal Republic of Germanylaunched a new project on Human rights and the death penalty in the United States on November 4, 2022, with a live panel discussion at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. The recorded event, attended by scholars, lawyers and members of the global diplomatic corps, was the first in a series of webinars
which will highlight human rights issues in the use and implementation of the death penalty in the United States and will feature renowned experts.
The program reframed the discussion of capital punishment from a public safety context to whether its existence and practice are inconsistent with basic notions of human rights. Legal historian and law professor John Bessler, author of numerous books on capital punishment, including the forthcoming The denial of fundamental human rights by the death penaltyexamined whether the death penalty, although permitted to a limited degree in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has become a form of punishment which, by its very nature, is fundamentally incompatible with our evolving understanding of human decency and human rights.
Explaining the expanded understanding of torture, from the physical infliction of excruciating pain to psychological torture and death threats, Bessler said, “We need to think about reclassifying the death penalty as an act of torture. The death penalty, he said, is “essentially a series of death threats. … [A] capital decision, it’s really just a death threat. You think of a death sentence, it’s just an even more believable death threat. … [W]hen we think of the death penalty, we have to think of the use of these types of state-sanctioned or 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, spoke of the dehumanizing treatment of women facing death penalty. capital punishment in the United States, both in the systemic failures to prevent and remedy the gender-based violence to which virtually all women facing the death penalty in the United States have been exposed and in the use of stereotypical arguments gender-related to seek the death penalty. “Prosecutors routinely indulge in these stories that are really rooted in gender stereotypes,” Greenfield said, “and women are ultimately executed after trials that are riddled with this kind of information.”
Diann Rust-Tierney, 2021-2022 Robert F. Drinan Visiting Professor for Human Rights at the Institute of Human Rights at Georgetown University Law Center, explored why the United States has not submitted the racial issues in the US death penalty to the same human rights analysis applied to the practices of other countries. “The death penalty has always been a violation of human rights and it’s something that our human rights allies around the world have always known,” Rust-Tierney said. “[W]When you trace the history of the death penalty and its use today, you see that it has always been used primarily to delineate the relative value of lives based on race and skin color.
Reviewing the evolution of the death penalty from Civil War-era slave laws to its racially disparate application today, Rust-Tierney said, “The death penalty is clearly a violation of human rights…. The gory, heartbreaking nature of the beast was always meant to be a feature. It’s not a bug. And although the death penalty has been disguised as a measure of accountability or in response to criminal activity and public safety, it is a practice that has always been practiced capriciously and biased.
The DPIC Human Rights Project grew out of discussions with staff from the German Embassy. DPIC presented the second event in the series, a webinar on Race, human rights and the death penalty in the United Stateson November 7, 2022, with two additional webinars to follow.
Axel Dittmann, Deputy Chief of Mission of the German Embassy in the United States, opened the embassy event with historical context. He recounted that Germany had abolished the death penalty in its 1949 constitution, explaining that it was the United States “that helped Germany build a constitution” based on the “principles of human dignity and human rights”. Discussing a pending United Nations resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty, Dittmann said that “Europe and Australia together hope for some support from the United States. By not opposing the resolution, the Biden administration could make its position and ambition clear in this area. This 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 United States, called the abolition of the death penalty “the first priority of the ‘EU to Advance 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 US and EU interpretation of the death penalty is that we view it as a human rights issue, while the US States primarily view capital punishment as a matter of criminal law.” The DPIC webinar series, she said, “will be really important in highlighting how retaining the death penalty perpetuates a wide range of human rights abuses.”
DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham, quarantined by COVID precautions, provided pre-recorded remarks ahead of the roundtable. “As you will hear throughout this series,” Dunham said, “the mere existence of capital punishment in the United States legitimizes other extreme practices in the administration of this country’s criminal laws and encourages nations to engage in even more serious human rights abuses. The death penalty in the United States is not only a human rights issue per se, it also hampers the efforts United and our friends and allies to respect human dignity, protect fundamental social, economic and political rights and promote the values of a free and open democratic society.
“We hope today’s session will reinvigorate a discussion of these important issues,” Dunham said.
DPIC Deputy Director Ngozi Ndulue moderated the Embassy event.
To watch a video of the roundtable, Click here.