Good News about the Death Penalty and Human Rights

Last night I received an email from a fellow anti-death penalty activist who shared good news from California. The 2010 California Democratic Party Convention included the following in its platform: "The California Democratic Party believes in the human rights of all people, and has taken a position opposing the death penalty in this year's platform."

At first glance this may not seem like a significant departure. Other State Democratic Parties, including my home Commonwealth of Massachusetts, have anti-death penalty planks in their platforms. The California plank, however, is a very important development because it places the issue of capital punishment within a human rights framework.

The death penalty abolition movement has been reluctant to focus on capital punishment as a human rights issue. Various state and national organizations have instead emphasized one of two arguments.

1. The perfection argument. If you have executions, you can’t afford to make a mistake, but since human beings can’t create perfect systems, mistakes are inevitable, and so we will execute an innocent person. This fear of executing innocent people has gained strength because DNA evidence has cleared so many death row inmates.
2. The expense argument. The death penalty costs so much and finances are tight. For instance, the fact that New York State spent $140 million on capital prosecutions over a 12-year period after reinstituting its death penalty and executed no one, is, perhaps, the principle reason why New York State no longer has the death penalty.

It is not my intent to criticize these reasons. I will support any argument that cuts down or eliminates executions, even though the first argument is vulnerable to the claim that it is OK to execute someone we know is guilty, and the second one produces the correct result for the wrong reason. The problem is that these strategic or technical arguments do not hold up well whenever a particularly heinous crime inflames public sentiment and opportunistic politicians clamor for the death penalty in response.

Viewing the death penalty as a human rights abuse changes the equation. Article Three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by all members of the United Nations states in part: “Everyone has the right to life…” These are the first words in the declaration that enumerate a specific right. This makes sense because if you don’t have this paramount right, none of the others mean much.

That executing someone would violate this most basic of all rights seems so obvious, but anti-death penalty activists have been reluctant to embrace it because most Americans (as opposed to Europeans) don’t view capital punishment in this manner. But we are never going to convince people if we are unwilling to make the argument. And the power of seeing executions as human rights abuses is that - Guantánamo, Bagram and Fox News notwithstanding - people are much less likely to tolerate human rights abuses under any circumstances.

Congratulations, California.
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