Featured

Death Penalty Moratorium Brings California Closer to International Human Rights Norms

CA death chamber
Photo: Office of the Governor of California  https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Striking-photos-show-San-Quentin-execution-13686251.php#photo-17066014

In March 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the state’s moratorium on the death penalty. His executive order gave the more than 700 inmates on death row reprieve from future execution (although they are still under sentence of death), closed the execution chamber in San Quentin Prison, and withdrew California’s lethal injection protocol. Governor Newsom’s order is a strong stance against the death penalty in California and the United States. The moratorium in my home state of California coincided with my internship here at The Advocates, where I have both worked on and learned about issues globally and domestically related to the death penalty.

The United States’ use of the death penalty and the conditions on death row are gross violations of global human rights norms. As of 2013, there were 3,000 prisoners on death row across 35 states . In Texas, inmates on death row are held in solitary confinement and spend all but 1-2 hours a day in isolation. When they receive visitors they are barred from having physical contact, including with their children Across the country, 93% of states with the death penalty lock up death row inmates for 22 or more hours a day and 67% of states mandate no-contact visitation for death row inmates. Additionally, 62% of states do not offer religious services to death row inmates. This practice violates the Constitution’s First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (for federal and DC prisons), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Being held in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades, has disastrous impacts on the mental health of death row inmates. Craig Haney, a psychologist at University of California Santa Cruz, conducted a 2003 study of inmates in solitary confinement. He found that two-thirds of inmates talked to themselves and nearly half had “perception disorders, hallucinations, or suicidal thoughts” and Stuart Grassian, who interviewed hundreds of inmates in solitary confinement, found that one-third developed severe mental illness. It is not an exaggeration to say that the treatment of death row inmates in solitary confinement amounts to torture. Techniques of social isolation of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan were some of the most common of the United States’ so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques. The United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, has argued these interrogation methods amount to torture. 

The United States’ treatment of death row inmates violates the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules of the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules. While the rules are not legally binding, they do set minimum expectations for the treatment of prisoners. The denial of religious services and resources violates two of these rules: rule 4, which states that prisons should offer education and and vocational training and other forms of recreation and assistance, including spiritual assistance, and rule 104, which requires that inmates be provided with religious instruction. With regard to the use of solitary confinement, rule 43 specifically prohibits “prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement.” Rule 45 goes on to prohibit solitary confinement as a condition of a prisoner’s sentence. The routine confinement of death row inmates to solitary confinement for the duration of their incarceration, particularly when mandated by state law, violates these rules.  

The Advocates is actively working to combat the death penalty in the United States and globally. The Advocates is on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. As part of our human rights advocacy at the UN we advocate against the death penalty by issuing reports and lobbying on the use of the death penalty on minors, inhumane detention conditions, lack of adequate legal representation, and other human rights concerns surrounding the death penalty. As part of this work The Advocates has collaborated not only with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty but also with local organizations and activists on reporting and advocating against the death penalty around the world. Combating the death penalty is a central piece of The Advocates’ work in international justice, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of this work.

By Hannah Maycock, a Fall 2018/Spring 2019 International Justice Intern at The Advocates. She graduated with a degree in Political Science from Macalester College May 2019.  

The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

death_penalty_countries_map
Map of the world based on countries’ death penalty status. Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/maps-and-graphics/countries-that-still-have-the-death-penalty/

Japan is one out of the fifty eight countries (including the United States) where the death penalty is still legal and actively carried out. In Japan, crimes punishable by execution include murder, terrorism, arson, and treason. Based on reports from the Japan Innocence & Death Penalty Information Center, 106 people have been executed since 1993, and as of November 2017, 126 people are currently on death row.

Hanging is the main method of execution in Japan, and is carried out in an isolated penal institution. The Japanese Government severely restricts people on death row from having contact with the outside world. Within the detention center, the communication of people on death row is strictly limited; only lawyers and close relatives are allowed to visit death row inmates. Furthermore, people sentenced to death are informed of their impending execution only on the morning of the execution. The Japanese government insists that such last-minute notification inflicts less psychological pain on people sentenced to death.

After learning of the death penalty policies and practices in Japan, we wanted to see how advocacy against the death penalty from various sources (civil society, states, stakeholders, etc.) could make a tangible impact. These issues regarding Japan’s death penalty and prison conditions have prompted criticism from domestic and international human rights organizations. A systematic mechanism for the organizations to raise these concerns is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.

The Universal Periodic Review: What is it?

UPR_overview_sc
Japan’s Review during the 28th Session of the Universal Periodic Review, 14 November 2017 Source:http://webtv.un.org/search/japan-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5644308605001/?term=japan&lan=english&cat=Human%20Rights%20Council&sort=date

Every four and a half years, countries are required to undergo a Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council. All UN member states – 193 countries in total – are required to participate in the UPR process, whereby they are subjected to review by the United Nations and are given the opportunity to report their progress on human rights issues and to receive and respond to recommendations from other countries.

The UPR process is structured in a way that allows for feedback from the state under review, as well as from on-the-ground non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) can submit stakeholder reports with firsthand accounts of the government’s failure to respect human rights. These stakeholder reports ensure that the Human Rights Council gets an accurate, well-rounded picture of the human rights situation in the state under review before the UPR’s “interactive dialogue.”

The Advocates’ UPR lobbying pays off

The Advocates for Human Rights works with other stakeholders to research and submit reports for consideration in the UPR process. Once the reports are submitted, The Advocates continues its efforts by contacting delegations of other UN member countries and lobbying them to make recommendations to the country under review. This lobbying can be done in person or via email. Oftentimes, these recommendations pertain to a single issue. The Advocates’ lobbying process for the November 2017 UPR of Japan provides a window into this type of UPR advocacy.

In preparation for the 28th Session of the Universal Periodic Review, The Advocates submitted a stakeholder report in conjunction with The Center for Prisoners’ Rights in Japan and The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. (Readers can access the full report on The Advocates’ website.) After submitting the stakeholder report, The Advocates reached out to several country representatives to raise its concerns on the issue of the death penalty in Japan.

The Advocates sent emails lobbying against the death penalty in Japan to 26 countries. Of the 26 countries contacted, 21 countries made recommendations at Japan’s UPR dialogue (the other five were not present at Japan’s UPR). Twenty of these countries made recommendations in line with The Advocates’ lobbying. These recommendation included the following:

  • Immediately impose an official moratorium on the use of the death penalty (Australia, Belgium, Finland, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland)
  • Ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which aims at abolishing the death penalty (Argentina, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, Uruguay)
  • Amend the Act on Penal Detention Facilities and Treatment of Inmates to ensure detention conditions meet international standards (Netherlands)
  • Open up a public debate and take concrete steps toward ending the death penalty (Belgium, France, Mexico, Norway, Rwanda, UK)

Beyond these twenty states, other representatives also made recommendations about the death penalty, echoing one or more of The Advocates’ recommendations. In total, 42 out of the 105 country representatives – a whopping 40% – participating in Japan’s UPR addressed the death penalty, demonstrating the strong international pressure for change in the country’s legal system. 

country_rep_sc
Country representatives of those who strongly recommended an end to the death penalty in Japan. Top row (from left to right): Mr. Suresh Adhikari, Nepal; Mr. Charles Kent, UK; and Ms. Laura Aubry, Switzerland. Middle row: Ms. Katarina Andric, Croatia; Mr. Curtis Peters, Canada; and Ms. Herborg F. Alvsaaker, Norway. Bottom row: Ms. Veronika Bard, Sweden; Ms. Lone Thorup, Denmark; and Ms. Monique T.G. Van Daalen, the Netherlands. Source:http://webtv.un.org/search/japan-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5644308605001/?term=japan&lan=english&cat=Human%20Rights%20Council&sort=date

Japan’s Response

In a closing statement at the UPR session, Mr. Yoshifumi Okamura and other representatives from the Japanese Government responded to the recommendations offered by other UN member countries. The Japanese delegates asserted the use of the death penalty in Japan is “unavoidable” and an immediate moratorium on the death penalty would be “inhumane” to the prisoners currently on death row, because such an act would arouse their hopes for abolition of the death penalty. The delegation rejected recommendations to convert death sentences to life imprisonment, asserting that a life sentence is a “very harsh punishment” and expressing great concern that the “character of the inmate will be destroyed due to prolonged confinement.”

Perhaps the most puzzling response from the Japanese Government was on the issue of notifying death row inmates of their execution on the morning on the execution. Government representatives asserted that an “inmate’s mental and psychological stability could be undermined and pain could be inflicted upon [them] if [they] were to inform about execution before the day of the execution.” As The Advocates’ noted in its report, the daily stress of not knowing the date of an impending execution certainly does even more to undermine the inmate’s mental and psychological stability.

After viewing the entire UPR session, we see that Japan is making strides in many areas of its human rights practices and policies. But progress in some areas does not erase the injustice of the continued practice of the death penalty and poor detention conditions. At the adoption of the Universal Periodic Review Working Group report, Mr. Yoshifumi Okamura stated: “There is no end to the promotion and protection of human rights.” The death penalty violates the most fundamental human right: the right to one’s own life. We hope Japan and the fifty seven other countries that actively the death penalty soon realize that this right is fundamental and act accordingly.

JAP_UPR_Yoshifumi_sc
Mr. Yoshifumi Okamura (front row, second from the left), the Representative of the Government of Japan and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Human Rights. Source: http://webtv.un.org/search/japan-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5644308605001/?term=japan&lan=english&cat=Human%20Rights%20Council&sort=date

By Emma Lind and Xuemeng Yao.

Emma Lind is a 2017 graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota with degrees in International Human Rights and Psychology. She is a 2017 fall intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

Xuemeng Yao is a junior at Macalester College with a major in Sociology. She is a 2017 fall intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the first in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates’ work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

Death Penalty Under Scrutiny: Is State-Sanctioned Murder Constitutional?

U.S. Supreme Court (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
U.S. Supreme Court (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday, October 10, the 14th World Day Against the Death Penalty will raise awareness of the application of the death penalty for terrorism-related offenses with the goal of reducing the use of the death penalty. The United States and 64 other countries allow people to be sentenced to death for terrorism-related offenses.

The Advocates for Human Rights, with the assistance of pro bono attorneys, collaborates with members of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty to bring death penalty issues to the attention of the United Nations to advocate for change.

Jury selection began last week in the case of Dylann Roof, the self-identified white supremacist accused of murdering nine black worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina last year. Roof was recently denied the opportunity to plead guilty and serve a life sentence for his crimes; the Department of Justice will instead seek the death penalty. In response, Roof’s lawyers have chosen to challenge the constitutionality of capital punishment head-on. Their decision to oppose the death penalty in court, citing the punishment as “a legally prohibited, arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments,” follows the lead of similar influential cases that have taken place across the country in the past several years.

In the United States, the federal government has not carried out a death sentence in over a decade. The Death Penalty Information Center reports 2015 as having the lowest recorded number of executions in 25 years (28 people), as well as the lowest number of death sentence convictions in over 40 years (49 people). At the same time, public opposition to the death penalty is at the highest level it has been in several decades, marking steady progress toward abolition of the death penalty.

From the grass roots to the U.S. Supreme Court, individuals have increasingly vocalized disdain for the death penalty. The Black Lives Matter movement has recognized diminished public support for capital punishment and in its policy platform is demanding immediate action toward complete abolition. In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision allowing states to continue to use the drug midazolam in executions, Justice Stephen G. Breyer authored a 46-page dissent, arguing that “it is highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment].” The drug itself is linked to causing severe pain in the process of an execution, a point which prompted some Justices to question the constitutionality of the death sentence. In his dissent, Justice Breyer noted several flaws in the system of administering capital punishment: the execution of innocent people; frequently exonerations of individuals on death row; and the negative influence of politics and discrimination on the imposition of the death penalty in the criminal justice system.

Seven states have abolished the death penalty since 2007, bringing the current total to 20. (Californians will vote on November 8 to determine whether that state will join the list.) The most recent is Delaware, when its Supreme Court ruled that the state’s statute allowing judges to overrule a jury’s decision for a life sentence was a direct violation of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution (the right to an impartial jury). In January of this year, the Supreme Court ruled similarly on Florida’s death penalty law. State by state, courts are ruling that major faults in our system of justice are in direct violation of basic rights recognized in the U.S. Constitution.

This recent trend of questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty reflects a growing awareness of defects within the criminal justice system. The system that exists today puts people with mentally illness to death, disproportionately executes black individuals convicted of murdering whites, and kills the innocent. Execution methods present a real risk of subjecting individuals to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment. Moreover, research demonstrates that the death penalty does not deter future murders. In the words of Delaware’s Governor Markell: “the use of capital punishment is an instrument of imperfect justice that doesn’t make us any safer.”

dp-by-the-numbersSource: The Nation

Capital punishment endures because many still assume that it is appropriate or effective. But here is what the death penalty doesn’t do:

  • preserve the constitutional rights to life and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment
  • promote a belief in rehabilitation and reconciliation
  • punish equitably, without discrimination based on race, socioeconomic status, or disability
  • punish fairly, by ensuring that no innocent person is executed and by ensuring that all defendants can fully exercise their due process rights
  • make progress toward addressing the root causes of crime in order to prevent heinous murders
  • address the ideologies and beliefs that motivate hate crimes (such Dylann Roof’s)
  • bring back victims of the crime

Dylann Roof must answer for his shocking crimes, and for the permanent damage he has inflicted on his victims and their families. We must recognize the powerful racial dynamics at work, acknowledging Roof’s racially based murders and his privileged status as a young white male in today’s criminal justice system. Yet, we should also recognize the significance of Roof’s lawyers challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty on a federal level. If the court decides that the death penalty violates the Constitution, not only will it mark significant progress toward ending state-sponsored murder, but our country may also find the motivation and political will to reform of a criminal justice system in desperate need of justice, and to bring that system in line with international human rights standards.

By Maggie Poulos, a student at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, majoring in International Studies with a minor in political science. During the summer of 2016, she was an intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. She is interning with The Advocates’ Refugee & Immigrant Program during the academic year.

Click here to learn more about The Advocates for Human Rights’ work against the death penalty.

 

Human rights defender in Iran starts hunger strike, demanding the right to call her children

Narges Mohammadi and her children, Kiana and Ali.
Narges Mohammadi and her children, Kiana and Ali.

Narges Mohammadi, vice chair of Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC) in Iran and currently imprisoned in Iran’s Evin Prison, started a hunger strike on June 27, 2016. The date coincides with the 21st day of the month of Ramadan.

Ms Mohammadi has written an emotional letter explaining her decision, the DHRC website reported.

In the letter, she says that she has “no demand other than the possibility of calling [her] children” and that, contrary to her desire and physical capability, she has no way other than a hunger strike to remind the world that she is a mother who misses her children.

Ms. Mohammadi was arrested at her home by intelligence ministry officials on May 5, 2015. Shortly after her arrest, while Ms. Mohammadi was in jail, her children joined their father who had been forced, under the pressure of security and judicial officials, to immigrate to France.

On May 18, 2016, the Revolutionary Court of Iran sentenced human rights defender Ms. Mohammadi to 16 years imprisonment on several counts including for “membership in the [now banned] Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” group, for “taking part in assembly and collusion against national security” and “committing propaganda against the state.”

In the past year, Ms Mohammadi has only once been able to speak to her children on the phone. That was in early April 2016.

Writing open letters to high judicial officials, Ms. Mohammadi has repeatedly protested against the behavior of jail guards and the security officials in prison.

What follows is the full text of the emotional letter of Narges Mohammadi, written on June 27, 2016.

It is now the month of Tir [June-July in Persian Calendar] and it was in the same month, a year ago in a hot summer, that my two little children, aged 8, left Iran for France to live with their father. It had become impossible to live without a mother and a father. I have repeatedly thought about our last meeting. Every time, my family would be left behind the large gates of Evin and only my dearest Kiana and Ali could enter the prison. From the gates to our meeting room in the security office, it was a long walk and the children were accompanied by a guard, holding each other’s hands. On the way, they’d see prisoners, in hand-cuffs and leg cuffs, wearing dark blue, striped prison uniforms and they were scared. When they got to me, while they were still tightly holding on to each other’s hands, they breathed heavily and spoke of what they had see.n Once Ali told Kiana: “Kiana, good that we ran away. The thieves would have gotten us”.

I was always worried about their coming and going until the last meeting came. They said: “Mommy Narges! Don’t you worry. We go to Daddy Taqi and we’ll come back again”. From the door of the security office to the middle of the courtyard, they turned back several times to look at me. They were holding hands. We said goodbye and the door was closed and my dearest Ali and Kiana left. Not only when I was bidding them goodbye with my eyes, but even now, after one year has past, I can’t believe they left. It was 1:30 pm. I don’t know how I gathered myself to go back to my cell. I passed the hallway and got into the courtyard. I stood on the hot asphalts to pray. I wanted to speak to Himself. Only to he, Himself. I don’t know what I said and what I heard and how much I cried. I don’t even know what to call my state: Prayer, Wailing or Losing Life. I don’t know how much I crouched on my painful knees but I stood up straight again. I don’t know how many times my forehead touched the dear soil of the Evin prison and how much of the tears coming from my eyes and the blood being shed from my heart did I gave away. But I stood up. I don’t know how many times did I hold my hands to the sky and asked Him for patience. My feet were burning so bad that I finally had to go back to my cell. I thought that in three months, when schools re-open, my dear ones would come. But September came and my children didn’t. I requested permission to speak on the phone with them; to at least hear their voice. But it wasn’t granted. In the Women’s section in Evin, unlike all the other prisons in the country, there is no phone for families to call. This is forbidden. We have a visitation time once a week and from week to week, we go without news, waiting for the next meeting. Mothers meet with their children once a week and in person. On Wednesdays, Maryam Akbarifard, Sedighe Moradi, Zahra Zahtabchi, Azita Rafiazade and Fateme Mosana are called to meet their children. I sit on the edge of my bed and ask the mothers to kiss the beautiful face of their sons and daughters. Mothers go to the meeting and I meet with my dearest Kiana and Ali in my own daydreams. I smell their small hands and kiss their beautiful faces.

For a year now, my only contact with my two small children has been limited to me asking about them from my sister and brother. I always hear the same sentence back: “Don’t you worry. They are doing fine.” I have forgotten their voices. I don’t keep their photos by my bed anymore. I can’t look at them. My sister said: “Every time I want to come see you, Ali tells me to ask ‘Mommy Narges’ if she dreams of me?” My only way to connect with my children is in our dreams. How strange it is that they also see their mothers in their nightly, childish, sweet dreams and this is how they connect with me.

It is a year since my children are gone and despite all the open and confidential letters that I and my family have written, my request for phone connection with my children has not been granted. Only once, on the occasion of the New Year, on 3 April 2016, on the written order of the Tehran prosecutor I spoke to my dear Kiana and Ali “for ten minutes, under security conditions and only with the children”. The last words of my children was: “Mommy Narges! I hope they let you call us again”.

In 2012, when I was arrested to go through my six years in prison, my interrogator in the cell 209 said: “Oh, remember you boasting about defending human rights? I’ll send you to the general section so you know who humans are.” And now I know because they had repeatedly asked me stop my activities so that they’d let me stay by my children. They thought by imposing separation and cutting all contact, even phone contact, they’d teach me what being a mother is.

In the last year, I’ve had a strange experience in prison. Being in prison and even getting a 16 sentence for my last case has not only not made me regret but has strengthened my will and belief in supporting human rights, more than ever. But nothing has reduced the suffering and pain caused by my dear ones and my beloved children being away. If during all this time, I have had a smile of happiness, being happy with my activities and work, my heart has always been filled with a bitter chaos caused by the desire to see them. Part of my existence is filled with satisfaction, happiness, seriousness and effort; and another part, full of pain, sadness and desire. As if my heart goes on its own way and my brain its own separate way. Once more, I am with Moses’s mother. It was the mother who received the revelation and put his child in a basket, on the Nile — it was the belief and faith of mother that did it. But just the day after, the separation of the child was heavy on the mother’s heart. So much so that she feared she’d speak of secrets of heart that she shouldn’t. She sang her song of wailing and went on her own way and God intervened… In this land, the power of my faith and my belief in the cause is challenged by human desire, love and kindness. My whole existence comes under pressure. And what pain is this. How hard to be in love with the dear ones, going toward your cause and thinking of humanity. I have always said that in a land where it is hard enough to be a woman, a mother or a human rights activist, to be all three is an unforgivable, human-breaking crime. And now, “I” in my land and homeland, am accused of being a human rights activist, feminist and an opponent of capital punishment (as the charges read in the court said). I am condemned and in prison. Oh, the beauty of the fate: I have to also be a woman and a mother.

They regarded my defense of human rights as a crime but, worse, they denied me being a woman and a mother. Until I die, I will protest. I will not forget. My children were three years old when they stormed my house and took my dear Kiana, who had recently gone under surgery, away from my bosom. As she was crying, her feverous body was thrown in jail. They were five years old and their father was away, when they came for me. The kids wouldn’t let me go. They had lied to them, promising that I’d join them that very night. They took me from them and imprisoned me and on 5 May when my children were in school and went home in the afternoon, hoping their mother would open the door, they were met with a closed door. They had to then follow their father and leave this land. I ask these men of religion and government, didn’t they do enough to me and my children? Should they also now harass my small, innocent children like this? I spoke clearly, as clear as the tears on my cheeks. I wrote simply, as simple as the love of a mother. I swore that “my heart is beating for my children”. I said: “The small heart of my children misses me”. Alas! No one heard me and no one responded. I was patient and waited for a year — hoping that a conscience in this Land of the Asleep will feel some pain. It was for nothing. My motherly love was once more denied. Going against my desire and physical capability, I have no way left other than a hunger strike — to cry that I am a mother and that I miss my children. Maybe someone would feel compassion. Maybe someone would feel shame in their conscience. Maybe there is an end to this hostility and tyranny. I have no demand other than being able to call my children. Is this demand too large, unreasonable, immoral, illegal and a threat to security? Tell me and convince me. If a mother that a government has found guilty should be deprived from hearing the sound of her children, say so! If not, let this mother hear the voice of her children. The punishment of us, women and mothers, is imprisonment not not being able to hear the voice of our loved ones. Believe that we are humans.

Narges Mohammadi

Evin Prison

Narges Mohammadi is Deputy Director of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC) in Iran. She was elected as President of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Peace in Iran, a broad coalition against war and for the promotion of human rights. She has campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty in Iran, and was awarded the Per Anger Prize by the Swedish government for her human rights work in 2011.

Learn more.

Ban on mandatory life-without-parole applies to all who were sentenced when juveniles, Supreme Court rules

Handcuffed hands

The Supreme Court issued a decision today in a 6-3 opinion that states must retroactively apply the ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. The ruling comes from the case of 69-year-old Henry Montgomery, imprisoned since he was 17 for a crime he committed in 1963.

When Montgomery was sentenced at age 17, life without parole was automatic. Neither the court nor the jury was allowed to consider his age, maturity, potential for rehabilitation, or other characteristics in determining his sentence. As a result, he has spent his entire adult life in prison and has been ineligible for parole.

In his petition to the Court, Montgomery discussed “his evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community.” According to the Court, he offers advice and serves as a role model to other inmates. He helped establish an inmate boxing team, serving as a trainer and coach.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense must not be sentenced to life in prison without parole unless the court considers the juvenile’s special circumstances in light of the principles and purposes of juvenile sentencing. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether this ruling would apply to juvenile offenders like Montgomery, whose sentences were already final at the time of the 2012 decision.

Today, the Court ruled that this 2012 ruling applies not only to juvenile offenders whose cases were still pending in 2012, but to all juvenile offenders who had been automatically sentenced to life without parole. This includes Montgomery.

Similar to the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, international human rights standards prohibit cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. As such, those standards require that punishments be individualized and proportionate to the facts and circumstances of the offender and the offense. Today’s ruling brings juvenile sentencing practices in the United States into closer compliance with those international standards, requiring courts to conduct an individualized assessment of each juvenile offender in determining the appropriate sentence for the offender. As the Court recognized today, “Before Miller, every juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could be sentenced to life without parole. After Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence.”

Now, with Montgomery, states must ensure that juvenile homicide offenders are considered for parole. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority:

“Henry Montgomery has spent each day of the past 46 years knowing he was condemned to die in prison. Perhaps it can be established that, due to exceptional circumstances, this fate was a just and proportionate punishment for the crime he committed as a 17-year-old boy. In light of what this Court has said . . . about how children are constitutionally different form adults in their level of culpability, however, prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their home for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

The UN Human Rights Committee has pressed the United States even further, urging it to fully comply with its international human rights obligations by entirely abolishing the sentence of life imprisonment without parole for juveniles. Today’s ruling is an important step in that direction.

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program, leads The Advocates’ work against the death penalty. She sits on the steering committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty Steering Committee, an alliance of more than 150 NGOs, bar associations, local authorities, and unions from around the globe.

Read the complete opinion.

The Death Penalty Doesn’t Stop Drug Crimes

World Day 2015

On September 28, 2015, the UN Human Rights Council hosted a three-hour panel discussion on “The Impact of the World Drug Problem on Human Rights.” One of the panelists was Mr. Aldo Lale of the UN Office on Drug Control. The Advocates for Human Rights and several of its partner organizations prepared the following oral statement for the discussion, highlighting that tomorrow, October 10, is World Day Against the Death Penalty. The theme for World Day 2015 is the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses.

This statement is made by The Advocates for Human Rights, Harm Reduction International, the Paris Bar, FIACAT, and the International Drug Policy Consortium, all members of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty.

Between 1980 and 2000, many countries added the death penalty as a punishment for drug-related offenses. This period coincides with the drafting, adoption and ratification of the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

Only a handful of the 33 countries that impose the death penalty for drug crimes actually execute drug offenders. But in those countries, drug crimes often result in the bulk of capital sentences and executions.

On October 10, the international community celebrates the 13th World Day against the Death Penalty, this year highlighting the human rights violations involved with imposing the death penalty for drug crimes.

International human rights standards recognize that the death penalty must be limited to the most serious crimes—intentional killings.

Further, the World Drug Report recently confirmed that after 30 years, countries that sentence people to death and execute them for drug crimes have not seen reductions in drug consumption or trafficking.

UN assistance in the form of international funds contributes to the arrest, prosecution, and subsequent sentencing to death of drug suspects. Since 2008 we have called on the UNODC to take responsibility for its role in these human rights violations.

In 2012, a UNODC Position Paper stated: “If, following requests for guarantees and high-level political intervention, executions for drug-related offences continue, UNODC may have no choice but to employ a temporary freeze or withdrawal of support.”

However, UNODC continues to fund law enforcement-focused counter-narcotics activities in a number of countries which aggressively apply the death penalty for drug offences. Earlier this year it was finalizing a new five year funding settlement in a country that has executed at least 394 drug offenders in 2015. This funding continues despite a recent report from the UNODC’s own Independent Evaluation Unit finding that that country has taken “no action . . . yet in line with UNODC guidance.”

Mr. Aldo Lale, how has UNODC applied these guidelines, and has it ever frozen or withdrawn support in countries that still conduct widespread executions for drug crimes?

We urge donors to freeze all financial support pending an investigation into how funds have been spent and until clear risk assessments and accountability mechanisms are put in place.

We welcome the panel’s views on how best to ensure accountability of the UN and donors for ensuring that human rights are respected in drug enforcement.

Thank you.

By: Amy Bergquist, International Justice Program staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights and its representative on the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty’s Steering Committee.

Learn more about World Day Against the Death Penalty and how you can get involved.

Learn more about The Advocates’ work on the death penalty around the world.

Pledges & Punts at the UN: The U.S. Government Responds to UPR Recommendations

blog_un

Today marks the formal end of the U.S. government’s second Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. But on many important issues, it’s really just the beginning of many years of work to implement the United States’ human rights obligations.

During the interactive dialogue part of the UPR in May 2015, the U.S. government received 343 recommendations from countries around the world. Today the government formally responded to each of them, stating whether it accepted, accepted in part, or noted (diplomatic UN-speak for “rejected”) each one. At the Human Rights Council in Geneva this morning, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby acknowledged that the United States hasn’t “been perfect in our efforts, and we still have many challenges.”

The Advocates for Human Rights has been engaging in advocacy throughout the UPR process, lobbying on the death penalty, immigration detention, and the rights of non-citizens. We submitted stakeholder reports on those issues back in September 2014, and we traveled to Geneva in March to lobby delegates to the Human Rights Council to encourage them to raise our issues in the interactive dialogue.

Those lobbying efforts were successful. For example, 45 countries presented recommendations to the United States on the death penalty, and 23 offered recommendations on the rights of non-citizens. The Advocates lobbied nearly every country that made recommendations on those issues.

Here are some highlights from those 343 recommendations, and the U.S. government’s responses:

Death penalty

Transparency on lethal injection drugs

Some of the U.S. government’s responses were discouraging. Knowing that the government was not likely commit to abolishing the death penalty, The Advocates lobbied France and many other countries to highlight the issue of state laws and practices that keep secret the identity and sources of drugs used in lethal injections. Transparency regarding the types of drugs used and the sources of those drugs is increasingly important in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross, which places additional evidentiary burdens on individuals seeking to challenge the proposed method of their execution as a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

During the interactive dialogue in May, France took up our issue, recommending that the U.S. government “[c]ommit to full transparency on the combination of medicines used during executions by injection.” Today, however, the U.S. government formally “noted” that recommendation, providing no explanation other than its position that the death penalty comports with our country’s human rights obligations.

Moratorium

In explaining the government’s decision to reject calls from 37 countries around the world to abolish–or at least consider a moratorium on–the death penalty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Busby told the Human Rights Council:

I’d also note that we received numerous recommendations–including from Ecuador, Austria, Lithuania, Congo, Nepal, and many others–concerning our administration of capital punishment. Domestic civil society also raised capital punishment as an issue of concern. While we did not support the majority of the recommendations on this topic, we respect those who made them. Our continuing differences in this are a matter of policy, and not what the rules of international human rights law currently require.

Racial bias and wrongful convictions

The U.S. government made some important pledges concerning the death penalty today. For example, we lobbied Angola and Poland about racial bias in the administration of the death penalty and about wrongful convictions. The government accepted these recommendations:

  • Angola: Identify the root causes of ethnic disparities concerning especially those sentenced to capital punishment in order to find ways [to] eliminate ethnic discrimination in the criminal justice system.
  • France: Identify the factors of racial disparity in the use of the death penalty and develop strategies to end possible discriminatory practices.
  • Poland: Strengthen safeguards against wrongful sentencing to death and subsequent wrongful execution by ensuring, inter alia, effective legal representation for defendants in death penalty cases, including at the post-conviction stage.

We also lobbied on the issue of compensation for victims of wrongful convictions. The U.S. government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Belgium to “[t]ake measures in follow-up to the recommendations of the Human Rights Committee to the US in 2014 with regards to capital punishment such as measures to avoid racial bias, to avoid wrongful sentencing to death and to provide adequate compensation if wrongful sentencing happens.” In its formal response, the government stated that it “support[s] consideration of these recommendations, noting that we may not agree with all of them.”

Immigrant detention

The U.S. government made several pledges on the detention of migrants, accepting a recommendation from Brazil to “[c]onsider alternatives to the detention of migrants, particularly children.” The government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Sweden to “[h]alt the detention of immigrant families and children, seek alternatives to detention and end the use of detention for reason of deterrence.” In its response, the government punted on the controversial use of immigrant detention to deter future migrants, but added that it is “working to shorten detention families may face while their immigration proceedings are resolved.”

One issue we lobbied on was the lack of due process in immigration removal proceedings. Honduras was particularly receptive to these issues, recommending that the United States “[e]nsure due process for all immigrants in immigration proceedings, using the principle of the best interest, especially in the case of families and unaccompanied children.”

Honduras is one of the main countries of origin for the unaccompanied children and families coming to the United States to seek asylum, so it was rewarding to see that government’s interest in the plight of its nationals.

In responding to Honduras’ recommendation, however, the U.S. government glossed over its international human rights obligation to ensure due process, instead asserting that “[n]oncitizens in the U.S. facing removal receive significant procedural protections.”

On the issue of the rights of children in immigration proceedings, the government ignored the fact that unaccompanied children have no right to a government-provided attorney, offering merely that “[t]he best interest of a child is one factor in determinations by immigration judges. [The Department of Health and Human Services] provides care and placement for children who enter the U.S. without an adult guardian, considering the best interests of the child in all placement decisions.”

Rights of migrants

Our lobbying and advocacy on the rights of migrants highlighted many of the findings in The Advocates’ groundbreaking report, Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today. One of the issues we highlighted was discrimination against and profiling of non-citizens. Iran, Mexico, and Nicaragua called for an end to discrimination and violence against migrants and non-citizens, among other targeted groups. In partially accepting these recommendations, however, the U.S. government glossed over migrants, describing efforts “to counter intolerance, violence, and discrimination against members of all minority groups, including African-Americans, Muslims, Arabs, and indigenous persons.”

Another issue we highlighted is excessive use of force by officials on our country’s southern border. Mexico called on the United States to “[i]nvestigate cases of deaths of migrants by customs and border patrols, particularly those where there have been indications of an excessive use of force, and ensure accountability and adequate reparation to the families of the victims.” The government accepted the recommendation in part, adding that it “cannot support parts of this recommendation concerning reparations.”

The U.S. government expressed its support for recommendations to “[r]eview in depth migration policy” (Congo), to “[f]urther improve the rights of immigrants” (Senegal), to give “special attention . . . to protecting migrant workers from exploitative working conditions, specifically in the agricultural sector” (Portugal), and to “[e]nsure the rights of migrant workers, especially in the sector of agriculture where the use of child laborers is a common practice” (Holy See).

But in responding to Algeria’s call to “[t]ake necessary measures to combat discriminatory practices against . . . migrant workers in the labor market,” the U.S. government ignored the obstacles immigrant workers face in combating discrimination. As we explained in our stakeholder report,

“immigrants who experience discrimination often do not complain, either because they are unaware of their rights under the law, because it is easier to leave the employer than to pursue a complaint, or, for undocumented workers, because fear of deportation keeps them silent.”

The U.S. government, in responding to Algeria’s recommendation, ignored these complexities, stating simply that “U.S. federal labor and employment laws generally apply to all workers, regardless of immigration status.”

What’s next?

The U.S. government may be breathing a sigh of relief that the UPR is finally over, but The Advocates and other members of civil society know that today is just the beginning. Now we begin the process of working with the government to implement the recommendations the government accepted. And we haven’t lost hope for those “noted” recommendations–surprisingly, research shows that governments often implement, at least in part, UPR recommendations that they formally reject.

To learn more about the Universal Periodic Review process, read the chapter on Advocacy at the United Nations in The Advocates for Human Rights’ 2015 toolkit, Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-Finding, Documentation, and Advocacy.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.