UN death penalty moratorium a milestone in effort to eliminate capital punishment

Richard C. Dieter [Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center]: "The overwhelming approval of the resolution for a global moratorium on executions by the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly is an important milestone in the growing international effort to restrict and eventually eliminate capital punishment. Although the resolution is likely to be adopted by the General Assembly itself, it has no binding power on member states of the U.N. and no direct legal impact on the death penalty in the United States. Nevertheless, the resolution will no doubt be cited in U.S. court decisions and the U.S. will feel its impact in the various international forums in which it participates.

The United States is bound by its own laws and constitution, and by treaties that it has ratified. The moratorium resolution does not fit into any of those categories. However, the Supreme Court has repeatedly confirmed that its understanding of what is prohibited by the "cruel and unusual punishments" clause of the Eighth Amendment is measured by the "evolving standards of decency" in society. Some would view that society to be confined by our own borders, but the Court has looked to international standards to confirm its interpretation of American values. In prohibiting the death penalty for the mentally retarded and for juvenile offenders, the Court took note of international trends on these issues. If the day comes when the death penalty itself is before the Court again, the emerging international abandonment of capital punishment will play an important, though not a decisive role.

In the meantime, these international concerns may play a small but important role as courts consider collateral issues such as the cruelty of a particular method of execution or its use against the seriously mentally ill. As was seen in the eventual abandonment of apartheid by South Africa, it is very difficult for an isolated country to maintain respect in the international community if it flaunts a human rights standard that nearly every other country agrees on. The U.S. may not want to be one of the last democracies standing that still uses the death penalty. The stream of human rights flows strongly, often bringing even the reluctant into its flow. The U.N. resolution is a clear sign of the direction in which this stream is heading."

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