US death penalty stance increasingly at odds with international community

Richard Dieter [Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center]: "The United States is often rightly seen as a world leader in human rights. But we have become increasingly isolated from the international community in one respect - our persistent use of the death penalty. The worldwide trend is clearly away from capital punishment. The United Nations, a recent World Congress in Geneva, and our allies in the European Union are all calling for an end to the death penalty. The US is not only among a dwindling minority of countries with an active death penalty, we are one of only a tiny handful of nations that actually carries out executions on a regular basis. Only in the Middle East and in some Asian countries are the number of executions comparable to those in the US every year. These are the same countries that the US frequently admonishes to improve their human rights record.

The US should not amend its law simply because other countries have done so. But our use of the death penalty is so far outside the stream of human rights that it is approaching the position of South Africa before apartheid was ended. The US was in the forefront of that movement, applying pressure and international sanctions until world opinion prevailed. The need for international cooperation is even more apparent than it was twenty years ago. We cannot and do not want to "go it alone" in areas of trade, resisting terrorism, or improving the environment, but we may become the last country standing with the death penalty.

The use of the death penalty is already declining in the US, reflecting the growing recognition that it is both too fallible and corruptible a system to meet the standards of justice in the twenty-first century. Death sentences, executions, the size of death row, and even the number of states with the death penalty have all dropped in the past few years. What we hold onto is a politically driven myth. Clearly, the death penalty in the US is not needed - the vast majority of murders, including many of the most heinous, are not punished with the death penalty. Police chiefs, leading criminologists, and the general public do not believe the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime. It is kept in place because it is politically hard to get rid of, not because it serves any criminological purpose. It is time for a national dialogue on the death penalty, one that is open to what the rest of the world has to say."

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