It is Time for the Biden Administration to Join the Rest of the World in Moving Against the Death Penalty

Posted in: International Law

On Thursday the United Nations General Assembly will vote on a resolution to establish a worldwide “moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.” Since 2007, the General Assembly has periodically voted on such a resolution.

In the past it has passed with substantial majorities of the nations of the world supporting it. In 2020, 123 nations did so.

All of America’s European allies, every country in the Western Hemisphere and a large number of African nations have supported the U.N. resolution and will do so again this year.

But never before has the United States been part of that majority. Under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, this country voted no.

When this year’s resolution was discussed in a U.N. committee, the United States again voted against it.

A representative of the United States explained that vote as follows: “International human rights law establishes clearly that Member States may, within certain established parameters, use this form of punishment as confirmed by Article 6 of the ICCPR (International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights), to which the U.S. is a party. Accordingly, the U.S. does not understand the lawful use of this form of punishment as contravening respect for human rights, both as it relates to the convicted and sentenced individual as well as the rights of others. Those states wishing to abolish the death penalty within their jurisdiction may choose to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.”

Such a legalistic response obscures the issue in principle. The United States should acknowledge that the death penalty cannot be squared with a commitment to human rights. It should support the moratorium resolution wholeheartedly.

Resolutions passed by the U.N. General Assembly do not bind member states and their passage does not change the legal status quo. If the United States were to vote yes on the death penalty resolution, states and the federal government could continue to impose capital sentences and carry out executions.

So why bother?

Joe Biden ran for President as an abolitionist. It is time for him to govern as an abolitionist. It is time for him to put this country on record as committed to ending the death penalty.

Doing so would send a strong signal of where he wants to lead the country on this issue and also would lend support to groups working to end the death penalty both in this country and in nations like Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, and Iran which still use it.

The world was reminded of the sheer brutality of state killing when Iran hanged two people for protesting against the current regime. These public executions outraged the world community. For citizens of this country, they were chilling reminders of our own history of lynching.

According to Amnesty International, the Iranian government is planning to execute at least another 18 people connected with the demonstrations.

Many of our allies expressed shock and outrage at Iran’s use of the death penalty. And leading Biden administration officials denounced “Iran’s brutal acts of violence against peaceful protestors and its ongoing repression of the Iranian people.”

Jake Sullivan, the President’s national security advisor tweeted that: “Iran’s execution of Ruhollah Zam, a journalist who was denied due process and sentenced for exercising his universal rights, is another horrifying human rights violation by the Iranian regime. We will join our partners in calling out and standing up to Iran’s abuses.”

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken retweeted Sullivan’s post. But the President said nothing.

The U.N. vote gives him and the country he leads a chance to go on the record and make those tweets the official position of the United States. If we do not do so, we are giving aid and comfort to the very regime whose acts we denounce when that regime carries out its most brutal deeds.

As he thinks about what the U.S. will do at the U.N., President Biden should follow the lead of Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown who announced on December 12 that she is commuting the sentences of all the people on that state’s death row. Her action spares the lives of 17 inmates awaiting execution who will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Her decision marks another significant milestone in the struggle to end the death penalty in the United States.

Brown pulled no punches in making clear her opposition to the death penalty. Her statement offers a model for the kind of statement the President might make in support of the U.N. moratorium resolution.

“I have long believed that justice is not advanced by taking a life,” Brown said. “The state should not be in the business of executing people — even if a terrible crime placed them in prison.”

Brown explained that “Since taking office in 2015, I have continued Oregon’s moratorium on executions because the death penalty is both dysfunctional and immoral.”

She said that her commutation “reflects the recognition that the death penalty is immoral. It is an irreversible punishment that does not allow for correction; is wasteful of taxpayer dollars; does not make communities safer; and cannot be and never has been administered fairly and equitably.”

Echoing Governor Brown, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has urged President Biden “to keep your promise of ensuring equality, equity, and justice in our criminal-legal system by abstaining from or voting for the forthcoming UN resolution on a death penalty moratorium. Any criminal-legal system truly dedicated to the pursuit of justice should recognize the humanity of all who encounter it and not sanction the use of a discriminatory practice that denies individuals their rights, fails to respect their dignity, and stands in stark contrast to the fundamental values of our democratic system of governance.”

The Leadership Conference reminded the President that “The United States is an outlier in the international community when it comes to the death penalty. More than two-thirds of all countries have abolished the death penalty in either law or practice. Experts on human rights have called for the complete abolition of the death penalty, saying that it is ‘almost impossible’ to administer the death penalty without violating the human rights of defendants….By abstaining from or voting in favor of the forthcoming UN resolution, you have the ability to set the United States on a path towards honoring human rights and recognizing and respecting the dignity and humanity of all.”

The Leadership Conference references abstention as an option for the United States. That would be much better than another opposition vote, and it would allow the administration to respect the decisions of jurisdictions in this country that want to continue to use the death penalty.

But I do not think that abstention is sufficient. An abolitionist President should not allow his administration to be silent about the death penalty on the international stage.

It is time for the United States to join most of the world in rejecting state killing.

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