UN report urges US to end capital punishment: biased justice FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 4 Apr 1998 21:37:16 -0800 (PST)

FWD  Los Angeles Times  Saturday, April 4, 1998

Rights panel calls for moratorium, says capital punishment targets
minorities, poor. Criticism could fuel battle between administration and
conservatives over back dues to world body.

     By CRAIG TURNER, LA Times Staff Writer
UNITED NATIONS--The application of the death penalty in the United States
is tainted by racism, economic discrimination, politics and an excessive
deference to victims' rights, a U.N. human rights investigator reported
Friday, as he and a United Nations panel called for a worldwide moratorium
 on capital punishment.
     U.S. officials criticized the accuracy and conclusions of the U.N.
study, which could fuel the battle between the Clinton administration and
conservative Republicans over hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. owes
the world body. While Americans want the United Nations to be an activist
organization on some fronts, when it takes on the United States--as
happened Friday--it provokes those who question the size and scope of its
     Bacre Waly Ndiaye, a lawyer and death penalty expert from Senegal,
concluded in his 54-page report that capital punishment as administered in
the U.S. operates outside international standards, and, in some instances,
in violation of international law.
     "In the United States, guarantees and safeguards, as well as specific
restrictions on capital punishment, are not being fully respected," Ndiaye
wrote. "Lack of adequate counsel and legal representation for many capital
defendants is disturbing. . . . The imposition of death sentences in the
United States seems to continue to be marked by arbitrariness. Race, ethnic
origin and economic status appear to be key determinants of who will and
who will not receive a sentence of death."
      He noted that the United States is one of only five countries to
permit the execution of defendants who committed their crimes while younger
than 18, a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights, which the United States has signed. The others are Iran, Pakistan,
Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
     The report, issued in Geneva at the annual meeting of the U.N.
Commission on Human Rights, is one of a series of U.N. evaluations of civil
liberties and rule of law in countries around the world. Most reports focus
on well-known human rights violators such as Iran, Iraq and China. But,
periodically, the U.N. sends an investigator to a democratic nation.
     Many of Ndiaye's observations echo those of death penalty critics in
the United States, but the report places the discussion in an international
context. Few other industrial democracies retain the death penalty, and
while executions are declining elsewhere around the world, they are on the
rise in the United States, even among juvenile defendants, the mentally
impaired and women, Ndiaye reported.
     The criticism also comes as the U.S. is urging the U.N., and Mary
Robinson, its new high commissioner for human rights, to take a tougher
line on civil liberties violations around the world.
     In Washington, the State Department issued a statement calling the
report inaccurate and unfair and said it "fails to recognize properly our
extensive safeguards and strict adherence to due process." The statement
also denied that U.S. practices are at variance with international law or
                                                             * * *
     Ndiaye's report was released as the 53-member Commission on Human
Rights, the United Nations' principal human rights assembly, adopted for
the second straight year a motion urging a moratorium on executions and
calling for recision of capital punishment. The vote was 26 to 13, with 12
     The United States joined China, Japan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Botswana,
Indonesia, Congo, Malaysia, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Korea and Sudan in
     "We believe that in a democratic society, the criminal justice system,
including the punishments prescribed for the most serious crimes, should
reflect the will of the people freely expressed and appropriately
implemented," George Moose, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, told
the delegates.
     But Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the death penalty project for the
American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said the vote and Ndiaye's
report carry an important message for Americans: "In a larger sense, the
U.S. is going to have to abide by an evolving standard of human rights in
the world and that means we're going to be called to answer whether our
administration of the death penalty measures up."
     Ndiaye, a former senior official of Amnesty International, has carried
out U.N. investigations in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and other countries.
He has monitored the death penalty in America since 1992 and began asking
the U.S. government for cooperation in an investigation in 1994.
     After several delays, Ndiaye visited the United States from Sept. 21
to Oct. 8, 1997, and included stops in Washington, New York, Florida and
California, where he toured San Quentin prison and met with Los Angeles
Police Chief Bernard Parks. He reported that San Quentin officials
permitted him to visit the prison but refused access to death row inmates
he wanted to interview.
     Besides citing statistics suggesting that the death penalty is
disproportionately applied to minorities and rarely carried out against
white defendants who kill blacks, the report asserts that "at least 29
persons with severe mental disabilities have been executed . . . since the
death penalty was reinstated in 1976." It also noted that 25 states permit
execution of prisoners as young as 16 or 17, although no one younger than
18 has been put to death since reinstatement. Since the death penalty was
reinstated, 451 people have been executed.
     Ndiaye also cited concerns about the growing victims' rights movement.
"While victims are entitled to respect and compassion, access to justice
and prompt redress, these rights should not be implemented at the expense
of those of the accused," he said. "Courts should not become a forum for
     The State Department response said U.S. authorities cooperated with
Ndiaye "because we have an open criminal justice system and want to
encourage other countries to open their doors to these U.N. fact finders."
But it strongly objected to his conclusions, saying: "Our system of
criminal justice is one of the fairest in the world.".
      A spokesman for Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) chairman of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, mocked the report and predicted that it would
erode public and congressional support for paying $1.3 billion the United
States owes the U.N. in back dues.
     "With all the human rights violations in the world, why is the U.N.
spending time and money investigating human rights in the United States?
It's a joke," said Mark Thiessen in a telephone interview from Washington.
"This is a perfect example of why people in the United States don't like
the U.N."
     When Ndiaye was touring the U.S. last fall, Helms denounced his
investigation as "an absurd U.N. charade." As Foreign Relations Committee
chairman, Helms' support is crucial if the administration is to win
congressional backing for at least partial payment of the U.S. arrears to
the U.N.
                                                             * * *
     Helms coauthored a bill to pay more than $800 million to the U.N. last
year but it has been stalled by the insistence of House Republicans on the
inclusion of antiabortion language that is unacceptable to the White House.
If Helms withdraws his support, it would further imperil the legislation.
     If the U.S. fails to pay at least $600 million this year, it could
suffer the embarrassment of losing its right to vote in the General
Assembly beginning in January. Under U.N. rules, any nation with
accumulated debts exceeding two years' worth of dues loses its vote.
      On Thursday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright renewed her call
on Congress to make good on the U.S. debt.
      U.S. officials said it is important for the United States to set an
example of cooperation with U.N. human rights investigators. By failing to
do so, the U.S. would place itself in the same category as Cuba, Myanmar,
Nigeria, Iraq, Indonesia and other authoritarian governments that refuse
entry to the investigators.

HOMELESS PEOPLE'S NETWORK  <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/>  Home Page
ARCHIVES  <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/archives.html>  read posts to HPN
TO JOIN  <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/join.html> or email Tom <wgcp@earthlink.net>