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NGOs to Push U.S. on Moratorium
Published on Tuesday, August 8, 2006 by the Inter Press Service
NGOs to Push U.S. on Moratorium
by Alison Langley

FRANKFURT - When the Human Rights Committee called on the United States last month to place a moratorium on the death penalty because it is imposed disproportionately on minorities and the poor, the Bush administration curtly ignored the recommendation.

Human rights organisations, however, have not; they are promising instead to keep up pressure.

...the US disproportionately metes out the death penalty to ethnic minorities and people with low-economic resources. Additionally, the U.S. was increasing, rather than decreasing the number of offences for which a defendant could be executed.

"This helps us point out that the U.S. is increasingly isolated," David Elliot, chief communications officer of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty told IPS in a telephone interview from Washington, DC. "It is very important for Americans to understand we are one of very few industrialised countries that still have the death penalty."

The demand for an immediate moratorium on capital punishment came during a review of U.S. compliance with a human rights treaty known as the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The review, which ended in July in Geneva, is a routine procedure that is supposed to occur every four years. This time it was more than seven years late due to the U.S. State Department's delay in submitting its own official report, the ICCPR said.

The committee recommendations on the death penalty were overshadowed by other aspects of the report, which included strong criticism over the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, torture of prisoners, Bush administration policies of rendition and charges of spying on domestic citizens. The treaty monitoring committee also expressed concern over racial disparities and the treatment of gays in the U.S.

In fact, the largest number of U.S.-based non-governmental organisations in recent memory - more than 150 -- formed a coalition to force the Bush Administration to re- assess its compliance with the human rights treaty, which was signed and ratified by the U.S. in 1992.

Together, the coalition representing groups as disparate as victims of Hurricane Katrina to gays to lawyers fighting for death row inmates and Guantanamo Bay prisoners said it would continue to press the U.S. to comply with the work of the committee.

"We will be using (the committee report) to get the U.S. to commit to change," Rob Freer, the Amnesty International officer in charge of death penalty abolition said in a telephone interview from London.

What the committee found, said Christine Chanet, chairwoman of this year's committee session, was a deterioration of human rights in the U.S. overall. In particular, there was a lack of movement in capital punishment as well.

"If you read the report from ten years ago, from 1995, you will see it was not as strong," Chanet told IPS by phone from France. "It is up to us to tell them they are moving in the wrong direction."

While not forbidding the use of the death penalty, the convention commits ratifying countries to abolish it in the long run and, in the meantime, to apply extremely stringent standards to its use. The convention's underlying philosophy is that punishment should have a rehabilitative purpose.

Instead, the committee found the United States still routinely executes or imprisons for life the mentally ill and imprisons for life without chance of parole offenders who were minors when they committed their crimes.

"The Human Rights Committee said locking children up for life without chance of parole is an international crime," Freer said, adding that children are considered to be more amenable to rehabilitation and need to be afforded appropriate chances. There are believed to be at least 72 people serving life sentences who were minors at the time they committed their crimes.

Moreover, while the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down attempts at executing the mentally retarded, people with mental illness, such as paranoid schizophrenia, still are killed by the state, the committee report found.

The committee also said that the U.S. disproportionately metes out the death penalty to ethnic minorities and people with low-economic resources. Additionally, the U.S. was increasing, rather than decreasing the number of offences for which a defendant could be executed. For instance, states such as South Carolina and Oklahoma now have laws allowing repeat child molesters to be executed.

The committee concluded that federal and state legislation in the U.S. should be reviewed "with a view to restricting the number of offences carrying the death penalty" and called on the U.S. to place a moratorium on capital punishment.

Delegates from the U.S. declined to comment to IPS, but they did disagree in its written statement to the committee, that it discriminated against people of colour.

"U.S. constitutional restraints, federal and state laws, and governmental practices have limited the death penalty to the most serious offences and has prevented the racially discriminatory imposition of the death penalty," the U.S. delegation wrote in a response to the committee's charges.

Both Freer, of Amnesty, and Elliot of the National Coalition said they were astonished by the statement. Some 63 percent of death row inmates are people of colour, yet they comprise only 25 percent of the U.S. population overall. African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 42 percent of the death row inmates.

Both groups said the ICCPR's report will not have any immediate affect in the U.S. They did add, however, that it is an important tool. The U.S. Supreme Court has begun to cite international law in its rulings and in an important opinion that abolished juvenile executions in 2005, it cited international opinion.

Though the report calls on the U.S. to impose an immediate moratorium on executions, the U.S. delegation insisted it had no power to do so, claiming most death sentences were carried out under the jurisdictions of the states. This claim of federalism is "a real obstacle," for abolitionists, Freer said, but not a complete block.

"We've called on the Bush administration to impose a moratorium on federal executions, thereby showing moral leadership," he said.

Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service


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