Paul O’Brien, Amnesty International USA
A macabre ritual, incompatible with human dignity but enacted over one and a half thousand times in the USA in the past four and a half decades, is set to continue into 2023.
On 3 January, the State of Missouri carried out the USA’s first execution of the year, and the 1,559th since the US Supreme Court upheld new capital statutes in 1976. Almost 90% of these executions have been conducted since June 1992 when the USA ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), article 6 of which protects the right to life of all human beings and against its arbitrary deprivation at the hands of the state.
On average, every 11 days since 1977, a person has been led from their death row cell and hanged, gassed, electrocuted, shot, or poisoned to death by government agents. More than 2,300 more people currently await such a fate, subjected for years to the cycle of hope and despair that is an inherent part of this punishment. Already, a dozen of them face execution dates in the first quarter of 2023.
Yet even as this conveyor belt of cruelty has rolled on, the USA’s political leaders have declared their country to be a, if not the, global human rights champion. Such an assertion was heard again recently. “The United States is leading by the power of our example – demonstrating that our commitment to human rights begins here at home”, proclaimed President Joe Biden on 9 December 2022 to mark the 74th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Five days later, the State of Mississippi carried out the USA’s 18th and final execution of the year.
As far as the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment is concerned then, the USA is setting a shameful human rights example and cementing something of an outlier status for itself. During 2022, Central African Republic, Kazakhstan and Papua New Guinea became the latest countries to do what the USA still has not done and abolished the death penalty for all crimes while Equatorial Guinea and most recently Zambia abolished the sentence from their criminal/penal codes. Today, more than two thirds of countries in the world are abolitionist in law or practice.
President Biden took office on a promise to work for abolition of the federal death penalty and to push for this goal in retentionist states of the USA too. Two years later, there is little to show for this promise.
Even when presented with opportunities to act in line with this pledge, the federal authorities have failed to take the high ground. On 15 December 2022, with 36 other countries, the USA voted NO on a UN General Assembly resolution calling on all states that still have this punishment for a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. A record 125 countries voted YES, “reaffirming” the UDHR and the ICCPR and “convinced that a moratorium on the use of the death penalty contributes to respect for human dignity and to the enhancement and progressive development of human rights”. This was the eighth such vote since the initial vote in 2007 – on each occasion the USA has voted with the naysayers and remained on the wrong side of human rights history.
This is not to deny that there has been abolitionist progress inside the USA. There have been advances in individual states, with 11 of them abolishing the death penalty in the past decade and a half, amidst growing recognition of its arbitrary, discriminatory, and error-strewn application, as well as its cruelty. Most recently, in December 2022, outgoing Oregon Governor Kate Brown commuted the death sentences of the 17 people on death row in her state, explaining her view that the death penalty is “immoral” and “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”. President Biden should immediately take a leaf from her book and commute the death sentences of all those on federal death row as a first step towards meeting his own pledge to offer leadership on abolition.
No doubt there will be resistance from some quarters, which is precisely why the President should throw energy and resources into this human rights struggle now. With 23 states now abolitionist, campaigners find themselves up against a hardcore group of states apparently devoted to retaining this punishment “with little regard for human rights concerns, transparency, fairness, or even their own ability to successfully carry it out”. They include Alabama, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, which together account for 55% of all executions in the USA since 1977 and 81% of the 26 executions conducted since President Biden took office in January 2021.
When the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, with then Senator Joe Biden on it, approved ratification of the ICCPR in 1992, it noted that, “In view of the leading role that the United States plays in the international struggle for human rights, the absence of ratification of the Covenant is conspicuous and, in the view of many, hypocritical. The Committee believes that ratification will remove doubts about the seriousness of the US commitment to human rights and strengthen the impact of US efforts in the human rights field.” If a reason for the USA to ratify the ICCPR was to dispel accusations of human rights hypocrisy, it has failed, not least because of its continuing resort to the death penalty in an increasingly abolitionist world.
Amnesty International USA urges President Biden finally and fully to act upon his promise. He must ensure that all officials across the country are aware of their obligation under international law to immediately set about carving an “irrevocable path towards complete eradication” of this cruel and senseless policy. There is no more time to lose.
In 2022, Amnesty International USA released a report on the federal death penalty, USA: The Power of Example, Whither the Biden Death Penalty Promise?, to mark the 50th anniversary of the of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Furman v. Georgia ruling, which temporarily outlawed executions in the USA.