The Death Penalty: Violation of the Right to Life

picture of death penalty protest
Source: Maryland GovPics, Creative Commons.

The most fundamental human right is the right to life as recognized in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The denial of the right to life, through the practice of capital punishment, is internationally condemned with nearly two-thirds of countries worldwide banning the death penalty in law or in practice. The United States is a notable outlier as the only member of the G8, one of three members of the G20, and the only Western country to still practice capital punishment. This is deeply problematic for several reasons: the practice does not deter or reduce crime, disproportionately targets poor and disabled minorities, and results in the sentencing of innocent people approximately 4.1% of the time.

The local rate of death penalty cases is alarming. According to Harvard Law’s Fair Punishment Project, 16 counties of the total 3,142 in the nation were listed as outliers, including Jefferson and Mobile counties in Alabama. The study states that Jefferson County “sent more criminal defendants to death row between 2010 and 2015 than almost every other county in the nation.” As one of thirty-one states to still have the death penalty, Alabama is the only one that allows sentencing to capital punishment with a non-unanimous vote. Additionally, Alabama is the only state allowing judges to override a jury’s conclusion to recommend life without parole. Kent Faulk reports defendants in all five Jefferson County death penalty cases are black, received non-unanimous verdicts—two of which were overturned by a judge, and one third of the defendants had “intellectual disability, severe mental illness, or brain damage.”

No Justice without Life
Source: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Creative Commons.

Racial discrimination is a continuing problem in America’s criminal justice system, and results in the state-sponsored deaths of minorities. Recent studies have found that courts are more likely to sentence a defendant to death if they murder a white person over any other race. A study in North Carolina found that the likelihood of obtaining the death sentence increased by nearly four times if the victim was white. In Louisiana, the odds of being sentenced to death for the murder of a white victim is 97% higher than for the murder of a black victim. Additionally, a Connecticut study found that minorities who kill whites are given the death penalty at higher rates than minorities who kill minorities. Some of this discrimination may be a consequence of the racial empathy gap—the finding that people automatically assume that African-Americans feel less pain than whites.

Anthony Ray Hinton was sentenced to Alabama’s death row, recently found innocent, and freed from after nearly thirty years. Hinton, released in 2015, gave his testimony of deep racial injustice of Alabama’s criminal justice system: “[The lieutenant] said, ‘I don’t care whether you did it or you don’t… but you gonna be convicted for it. And you know why? … You got a white man. They say you shot him. Gonna have a white D.A. We gonna have a white judge. You gonna have a white jury more than likely. All of that spell conviction, conviction, conviction.’” When new evidence found Hinton innocent, he was released without any compensation, assistance program, or even a bus ticket. This, perhaps, is a more egregious wrong than the decades-long imprisonment itself. Exonerated prisoners find themselves in a changed world with no shelter, no job, and often no family. Former prisoners require mental, physical, and emotional help to successfully adjust to the world outside prison, but never receive it. In a country that declares itself to be a global leader of human rights, violations like these are unacceptable.

a picture of sad jailed prisoners
Jailed prisoners. Source: Ancho, Creative Commons.

American values list freedom, individualism, and equality– yet we simultaneously deny the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and security of person to hundreds of criminal defendants per year. International human rights treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Kyoto Protocol, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) remain unsigned by the United States, despite claims of upholding and honoring them. The US is the only member state of the United Nations other than Somalia that has not ratified the UNCRC, and one of only seven who have not ratified CEDAW. So far, only eighteen US states and the District of Colombia have abolished the death penalty; that number can only increase with action and engagement by citizens. Amnesty International states, “The death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights.”

This week, the Alabama House of Representative will vote on a bill to prohibit judicial override of jury recommendations against the death sentence. This power of judicial override, prohibited in all capital murder cases except in Alabama, has occurred 112 times– 101 of which gave a death sentence. If you feel strongly about this bill, contact your representatives using this link.

 

Additional Resources:

Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy and Equal Justice Initiative

Michelle Alexander

Ava DuVernay

Angela Davis

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Southern Poverty Law Center

A Tie that Binds and Shapes Us

a picture of 16th Street Baptist Church from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
The 16th Street Baptist Church across from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Source: Beth Bryan, Creative Commons.

Barack Obama, in one of his last acts as president, signed a proclamation that designated the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a national monument. For those unaware, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel, Bethel Baptist Church, the Colored Masonic Temple, St. Paul United Methodist Church, portions of the 4th Avenue Business District, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  These locations are “hallowed grounds” for Birmingham because they serve as the epicenter American Civil Rights Movement.  We speak of the history regarding these locations. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands as the site of a horrific bombing that claimed the lives of four black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. However, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was also—and still continues to serve as–a social center and lecture hall for education and social awareness; a headquarters for activism; and a platform for heralded visitors as it did in the past, for leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Ralph Bunche, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and most recently, Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch who spoke her final message as a public servant.  The Colored Masonic Temple, which beyond its beautiful architecture, sat as the centerpiece for lively Black owned businesses and a booming downtown social life.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and some of the movement’s top leaders strategized in room 30 of the A.G. Gaston Motel, which also became known as the “war room”. Additionally, in this room, Dr. King made the decision to submit himself to being jailed—resulting in a “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. To this day, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” serves as the most important written document of the civil rights era because of its tangible reproduced accounts in the fight for freedom and King’s response to the broad criticisms he has received from around the country. As you can imagine, I can write at considerable length about the historical facts and pieces of information I have picked up from the Birmingham Civil Rights District. However, the focus of this post is to address why this national monument is important.

The National Monument is a Mile Marker for Racial and Social Progress

What a society and its citizens choose to remember and create moments for, communicates a great deal about where their beliefs lie. At the same time, there is essential learning in understanding what a society chooses to forget. That said, I think that it is critical for each generation to understand the struggles and sacrifices many have endured to achieve equal rights because that cultural memory plays a role in the shaping of our collective identity. To this degree, we must accept the ugly truth that racism is embedded within our society and remnants of its power still resides within today’s social structure. In order for us to move forward in the solving of social problems, we must embrace this part of our history and understand how the intersections of race, class, privilege, gender, and so forth influences current issues. If not, then the politics of denial will continue to  define teachings of American Civil Rights Movement into a one month a year curriculum composed of mainstream heroes that is not taught widely enough or comprehensively addressed at various school levels. Through the national monument, we as global citizens are pushed to think critically about our past. We are challenged to ask ourselves how can we move forward in the fight for equality and equity locally and globally.  As important, we are reminded that the fight is not over.

This National Monument Preserves a “Balanced Realness” of African-American Culture

There is more to African-American culture than the mainstream depictions which tend to populate and reinforce negative stereotypes through mainstream media. The story of black people in Birmingham is one which highlights how individuals are able to rise from second class citizenship to obtain an education, contribute to society, maintain families, and overcome multiple challenges serves as a critical element of our American lineage. Through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we are afforded the opportunity to hear those stories; learn of all the heroes and their sacrifices; and to speak with some of those “living griots” who volunteer to share their own knowledge and experiences with the public. And, it is just not in the very people. As previously stated, this national monument is hallowed grounds because the location itself is a symbolic repository of African-American culture that has often been paved over, gone through urban renewal, gentrified, and left to stand as unidentified culture markers in major cities.

The National Monument Reinforces the Hope of Our Collective Community

The Birmingham Civil Rights District is not just Black history; it is American history. In a society that continues to diversify and splinter, it is crucial for us to be reminded that we are still one community. Together, we share a common heritage and history of hope and resilience through tough times. To me, the beauty of the civil rights movement is that when you reflect, there are continuous instances where multiple ethnic and cultural groups have decided to unite in the face of oppression. Today, we are facing with some unique challenges. There are segments of our population who are not only oppressed, but seeking refuge and allies to stand with them. As we look for answers, our national monument stands as a constant reminder that we are the change that we wish to see, and all we have to do is come together.  In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

In closing, the national monument is more than just a series of historical buildings and educational centers containing a collection of objects and documents. It is a powerful reminder of Birmingham’s culture and its impact on the larger American story. I am confident that as the fight for equality, equity and inclusion continues, we will find a way to find opportunity in the midst of life’s challenges because that is what we do. In the words of John Henrik Clarke, “What we have done before, we can do again.”

Comparative Politics and Human Rights

picture of the US Capital building
The Capital. Source: colincalvert, Creative Commons.

At the time of this writing, 2 February 2017, the United States of America is a liberal democracy. Equal representation in government due to frequent, fair and free elections, and governmental accountability are arguably some of the guiding maxims shaping and molding the relationship between American citizens and their government.  Democracy, as publicly educated schoolchildren are taught, is a representative government operating under the highest ideals of freedom and security.  In addition to liberal democracies, what other forms of government exist?  How do they operate?  How do states of different regimes interact?  And, most importantly, how are universal human rights promoted or impeded by different governmental regimes?

The function and structure of government has been fiercely debated for thousands of years and, indeed, there are many differing opinions on the “perfect” form of governmental regime. Regimes should, according to most theorists, provide a combination of freedom, security, and equality for its citizens (McCormick, 2007). Governments are systems by which a state rations and applies power, whereas regime describes the overall type of government that is in place. The term state–an interchangeable term for nation or country, generally utilized by political scientists and internationalists–will be used throughout this blog in the same manner.

On the international level, states must possess authority and sovereignty. Authority is the ability to exert power and control over its citizens while sovereignty is the ability to act free of outside influence from other states. Due to the nature of international order, including the existence of the UN, many scholars believe the era absolute authority and sovereignty of states has come to a close.  Political theorists now refer to states as having relative authority and sovereignty, as the UN and other global institutions now have more and more influence on the conduct of states around the world (McCormick, 2007).  What is becoming increasingly clear is that the impact of different governmental regimes is no longer confined to just the administration and its citizens. Globalization, the description of increasing interdependence and influence of international state and non-state actors on one another, has supported the premise that regimes can and do affect other regimes both regionally and globally (O’Neil, 2007).

A regime operationalized is the way in which a state attempts to promote freedom, and/or equality, and/or security domestically for its citizens and internationally through relations with other states (O’Neil, 2007). Regimes types are labeled based on which of the primary government functions–freedom, equality, security–the regime promotes the most.  A regime promoting freedom, for example, is more likely to be a liberal democracy rather than a regime promoting equality at the expense of freedom (i.e. communism; O’Neil & Rogowski, 2006).  Regime types vary according to their respective levels of freedom, equality, and security; the respective levels of these three factors trickle down to influence the lives of the citizens in any given state.  Interdisciplinary research in psychology, anthropology, political science, and international relations shows a society’s cultural values may be an extension of its governmental structure; therefore, regime and “national personality” (a form of assessing culture) are linked in this way.  What has not been definitively proven, however, is the directionality of this relationship: does culture affect regime or does regime affect culture?  Government regimes all lie on a continuum: we may think of totalitarianism to be the most oppressive, and liberal democracy to be the most faily representative and accountable.  Other forms of government, such as authoritarianism, communism, socialism, and tribalism, all lie on this continuum as well.  For the purposes of this blog, the concept of human rights in society will be compared to three regime types: totalitarian regimes, authoritarian regimes, and liberal democracies. By investigating the promotion or degradation of human rights in each of these three regimes, scholars and laypeople alike can better understand the relationship between human rights and government. While most of the blog posts on the Institute for Human Rights features a ‘bottom-up’ modality of human rights advocacy, this paper will examine the opposite approach: ‘top-down’.

a picture of shackles
Shakles. Source: Heather Katsoulis, Creative Commons.

Totalitarian Regimes

What form of regime would arise if an ideological extremist exerted absolute control over a state?  This is totalitarianism (O’Neil, 2007).  Pure totalitarian regimes have been rare throughout human history, with some recent examples including Hitler and his Nazi ideology, Stalin and his Communist ideology, and Kim Jong Il and his cult of personality.  Totalitarian states have a small group of leaders, led by one individual with an absolute mandate, dictating every way of life for its citizens. Totalitarian regimes rule with fear, violence, mechanisms of repression, and oftentimes isolate the state and its citizens from the influence of outside communication and interference (O’Neil, 2007).  These regimes are guided, as previously stated, by an ideology that governs all ways of life for the state’s citizens; this ideology is part of the triad of totalitarianism, also including the state party having hegemonic control over the military-police force and industry / production in the state (O’Neil, 2007).  Ideology, the marriage of party and law enforcement, and the dictation of culture all comprise the triad, which aids in the efficacy of the totalitarian regime to exert control. This triad is the main arm by which totalitarian regimes repress its subjects. The goal of totalitarian regimes is the spread of its ideology throughout the world, dominion over one state is typically not sufficient.  Totalitarianism is seen as the ‘lowest on the scale’ in terms of personal freedom. Totalitarian regimes, such as North Korea, overemphasize security and grossly divert the national budget towards the military and defense.

A hallmark of the totalitarian regime is its quest for pure ideological control from the top down. To again refer to the North Korean case, upon the death of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean people were required to enter a period of intense mourning until his successor could ascend to the throne. During the time of mourning, North Korea was considered a ‘necropolis’, a term used when the leader of a nation-state is actually a deceased individual.  Kim Jong-un assumed the supreme leader position and North Korea resumed its totalitarian tendencies.  The totalitarian government dictates the culture of the state often using manufactured fear, secret police, and a controlled public media/propaganda machine.

Authoritarian Regimes

Authoritarian regimes are often secretive and therefore difficult to study.  In contrast to totalitarian regimes, where the leader or party in control touts the political clout of leadership, authoritarian leaders understand the power of secrecy in maintaining control.  Authoritarian governments can take many forms- on paper, that is.  Maintaining a visage of functioning democratic ideals (this concept will be visited later) is important to many authoritarian leaders, as the international community tends to forgo prosecuting and punishing democratic states.  Authoritarian regimes are operationally defined by a small loci of power (either by one leader, a military junta, or party leaders) controlling many aspects of live for the citizens of the state.  Like totalitarianism, authoritarianism is utterly non-democratic in practice (regardless if they hold ‘elections’; O’Neil, 2007).  Indeed, part of the insidiousness of dictators controlling an authoritarian regime is their use of fake elections to make the appearances of a democratic transfer or retention of power for leadership. Authoritarian regimes share many similarities with totalitarian regimes; however, authoritarianism typically does not include an ideology or philosophy, or the need for leaders to spread ideology throughout the world (O’Neil & Rogowski, 2006). Violence, repression, lack of free speech, and the need for an ‘enemy’–whether foreign or abroad–is characteristic of authoritarian regimes.

The mechanisms by which an authoritarian leader retains control may be divided into discrete categories: by force, by culture, and by capital.  Authoritarian dictators can and will use their police force and military capabilities at will to depose dissidents and quash rebellion (O’Neill, 2007).  In the case of violent repression, the international community may elect to step in, and this threat is not lost on the savvy dictator. Therefore, other means of repression have been commonplace in authoritarian regimes.  The subtle use of cultural and societal mores as an extension of the government has been well documented, and the term ‘authoritarian’ has entered the common lexicon to refer to any personality or culture embodying the pursuit of power and control at the expense of others (McCormick, 2007; O’Neil, 2007; O’Neil & Rogowski, 2007).  Again, the security of a state and its leaders is championed by the elimination of citizens’ freedom. Human rights, similarly to authoritarianism, is typically in dire straits under the influence of an authoritarian leader.

Liberal Democratic Regimes

Finally, the last regime type explored in this blog is the liberal democracy–whereby a state’s representatives are elected through free, fair, and frequent elections by eligible citizens (O’Neil, 2007).  Liberal democracies take several forms: the presidential system (found in the United States), the parliamentary system (in the UK), and a semi-presidential system (France; McCormick, 2007).  Unlike the previous two types of regimes, democracies attempt to provide citizens with freedom, equality, and security alike (O’Neil, 2007).  An important caveat here: in democracy, freedom is typically more championed than equality; the reverse would be true in a communist or socialist regime. Liberal democracies typically enact policies allowing for citizens to allow more personal choice in their lives (freedom) rather than policies that ‘level the playing field’ (equality).  All liberal democracies feature policies promoting both freedom and equality to a certain extent (O’Neil, 2007).  Liberal democracies have recently been touted as the ‘ideal’ government due to its representative nature; however, problems exist in democracies just like in any form for government.  As political parties have risen in ascendancy, as a form of power consolidation within democracies, beleaguered by petty power grabs and comparatively low-level corruption, many voters in liberal democracies have expressed discontent with their representing parties (How strong are the institutions of liberal societies, 2016).  The Economist recently published a critique of modern liberal democracy, importing its readers the dangers of populism, political party influence, and degradation of the fair and public media as assaults on the fundamental institutions of democracy.

Liberal democracy is built upon ideal of citizens wielding power over the state, as opposed to the unbridled conglomeration of power in totalitarian regimes.  Ideals such as protection of the public sphere (whereby knowledge and information is shared freely and publicly among all persons), a reciprocally deterministic relationship between citizens and government (i.e., representatives being held accountable to their constituents), and the enshrinement of human rights all clearly and concisely comprise the blueprint of democracy.  Liberal democracies represent not only a regime type, but also the synthesis between political institutions and moral thinking itself.  Universal ethical imperatives, such as those outlined in the UN and its many treaties, policies and protocols, are the foundation for human rights.  Liberal democracies have embraced human rights as staple of their political culture.  The word ‘citizen’ is used with intention here because democracies have citizens. Repressive governments are said to have subjects.

Comparative Politics and Human Rights

This blog post is the first of several elucidating the connections between comparative politics and the protection of human rights.  The comparative analysis of regimes often attempts to provide easy-to-understand, distinct, and discrete forms of government, such as totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and democracy.  In reality, governments and regimes exist in a world of gray, a space between these clear definitions.  Democracies use torture.  Totalitarian regimes care for the elderly.  Authoritarian leaders sometime start their reign genuinely advocating for the rights of repressed persons.  A lesson to be learned from this analysis is not to classify regimes and governments as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, for exercising more judgement in that regard could alienate populations and incite leaders to violence. Given this suspension of judgement, the study of human rights’ relationship to regime will help scholars and laypersons alike understand what, if any, threats to their rights exist in the world around them.

Concluding this paper is a word of caution to global citizens, but especially those living under the regime of liberal democracy. A term mentioned above, the public sphere, refers to the ability for any and all members in a state to come together and freely share information (especially knowledge from science, art, and religion) for the goal of political change and debate. An analogy would be the Forum used in Ancient Greece. The public sphere today includes popular social media and the press (whether print or online). The role of the free press in particular has been greatly threatened and trivialized in many states around the world, including liberal democracies such as the United States. It is through the press and other non-governmental actors the tangible effects of the regime are made public. To threaten and attack institutions such as free press is to directly threaten the mechanism by which democracy is held accountable. Without a platform for public discourse, the public sphere is limited in its access of information: imagine a library with no books or internet. To publicly call and shame a government for human rights violations is one of the most important mechanisms by which governments are held accountable. In a post-facts world, the truth about your government does matter.

 

References

How strong are the institutions of liberal societies? (2016). The Economist (Online), Retrieved from http://fetch.mhsl.uab.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1837417012?accountid=8240

McCormick, J. (2007).  Comparative Politics in Transition (5th. Ed.)  Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

O’Neil, P. H. (2007).  Essentials of Comparative Politics (2nd Ed.).  W. W. Norton & Company: New York, NY.

O’Neil, P. H. & Rogowski, R. (2006).  Essential Readings in Comparative Politics (2nd Ed.).  W. W. Norton & Company: New York, NY.