At least 136 countries across the world have rejected the death penalty by law or in practice, and worldwide support for abolition of the death penalty continues to mount. Still, the U.S. remains an outlier. Earlier this month, the United States submitted to its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) with the U.N. Human Rights Council, in which U.N. member states had an opportunity to assess and review our country’s human rights record. The U.S. death penalty — an ultimate and irrevocable human rights violation — was one of the leading concerns addressed during the review. Countries were particularly concerned with the U.S. tolerating a system in which innocent people continue to be sent to death row, people with mental illnesses are sentenced to death, and sentences are disproportionately imposed along racial lines.
The ACLU sent a delegation to the review and pressed the U.S. government to impose a federal moratorium on the death penalty as a first step towards nationwide abolition. The ACLU also joined the recommendations of member states in calling on the U.S. to address serious flaws in the administration of the death penalty, including racial bias, underfunded indigent defense programs, deplorable death row conditions and a lack of full access to federal courts.
Last week, and for the third time in four years, the U.N. General Assembly echoed these recommendations and called for all countries to impose a moratorium on executions with a view towards eventual abolition. Since the last vote two years ago, several states, including Bhutan, Kiribati, Maldives, Mongolia and Togo, decided to support the moratorium, and many states changed their votes from opposition to abstention. But the U.S., alone among Western democracies, remained steadfast in voting against the moratorium. In doing so, it aligned itself with states like China, North Korea, Egypt, and Iraq — hardly states with exemplary human rights records.
In explaining its vote, the U.S. hypocritically urged other states to “focus their attention towards addressing and preventing human rights violations that may result from the improperly imposed application of capital punishment” and make greater efforts “to ensure that capital punishment is not applied in an extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary manner” but expressed no willingness to make any similar efforts at home.
The U.S. purports to be “a strong supporter of the UPR process.” Whether it will give this support more than lip service when it comes to its own reforms remains to be seen in the coming years. But maintaining the status quo in the U.S. death penalty system will not do. As the rest of the world abandons this irreversible penalty tainted by racial bias and fraught with error, the U.S. should, too.