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Cover story

U.S. allies see death penalty as fascist relic

NCR Staff

When it comes to executing criminals, the United States is marching to a different drummer from its closest allies.

When the 15 member states of the European Union signed a new human rights charter Dec. 6, its second article, reflecting a consensus, said: “No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed.”

“It is striking that European politicians, even in moments of public outrage over hideous crimes, generally do not renew calls for the death penalty,” said James Walston, a professor of political science at the American University in Rome. “There is, generally speaking, a consensus that it is simply beyond the pale, little more than the law of the jungle.”

If, as expected, Mark Fowler is executed in Oklahoma on Jan. 23, his death, along with other executions in the United States, will be widely reported here, perhaps even more so than in much of the American press.

Another Oklahoma case, that of Wanda Jean Allen, scheduled to be executed Jan. 11, has garnered even more overseas attention. Allen would be the first black woman put to death in the United States since 1954, and is said to suffer from sufficiently low intelligence to be considered disabled.

In European coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign, no point was made with more regularity -- and, in some instances, incredulity -- than George W. Bush’s record-setting use of the death penalty in Texas.

A scene in a the recent Italian film Il Partigiano Johnn vividly captures the mental associations many Europeans make when confronted with governments that put people to death. The film, set amid Italy’s underground resistance to the Nazis during World War II, opens with a column of prisoners moving past a wall. An enormous poster proclaims the death penalty for disobedience to German authority. One desperate inmate makes a break and is machine-gunned on the spot.

For many Europeans, capital punishment seems a legacy of absolutism, whether of kings or fascist dictators, incompatible with modern democracy. Many regard capital punishment as a human rights violation analogous to censorship or slavery.

Europe is home to some of the world’s most highly organized anti-capital punishment campaigns, including secular efforts such as “Hands off Cain” and Amnesty International, and, from the Catholic side, the Rome-based Sant’Egidio community.

Working together, these groups last year launched a “Moratorium 2000” campaign, asking nations to declare a halt to executions.

Organizers point to seven countries that officially abolished the death penalty in 2000: El Salvador, Bulgaria, Albania, Turkmenistan, Bermuda, Ukraine and Ivory Coast. In addition, the Philippines declared a temporary moratorium.

According to statistics from Sant’Egidio, the long-range trend in the world is toward abolition. In 1970, there were 21 nations that had officially abolished the death penalty, virtually all in Western Europe; today there are 75, with another 21 that are abolitionist “in practice,” meaning that while they still have capital punishment laws, they in fact avoid executions. There are 86 nations that still put prisoners to death under at least some circumstances.

The United Nations adopted a resolution favoring abolition of the death penalty in 1971, and the 1989 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights likewise calls for abolition. U.N.-sponsored tribunals, such as those currently operating in Bosnia and Rwanda, do not include capital punishment among the range of possible punishments.

Interest in American death penalty cases peaks when European citizens are involved, as happened in Arizona, for example, in 1999 when German brothers Karl and Walter LaGrand were put to death despite repeated appeals from the German government. Germany brought the United States before the World Court in the Netherlands and won an injunction, but Arizona officials refused to acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction.

Fourteen foreign nationals from 11 countries have been executed since the reinstitution of capital punishment in the United States in 1976, and another 82 remain on death rows. According to a 1999 report from the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, in many of these cases the foreign citizens were never advised of their right to contact their ambassadors for assistance, as required under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, articulated the prevailing European view in 1998. “The increasing use of the death penalty in the United States and in a number of other states is a matter of serious concern and runs counter to the international community’s expressed desire for the abolition of the death penalty,” she said.

In December, death penalty opponents from around the world delivered a petition with 3 million signatures to the United Nations supporting a global ban on capital punishment. Of that total, more than 2 million came from Europe.

Italy is an especially staunch death penalty foe. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was the first sovereign state to abolish the death penalty, in 1786, and some Italians are pushing to have the date of that act, Nov. 30, made into a national holiday.

Italians from several walks of life have made contributions to the cause, ranging from fashion magnate Oscar Benetton, whose company launched a controversial advertising campaign featuring soulful photos of death row inmates, to novelist Dario Fo, who recently announced that the proceeds from his new book will go to anti-death penalty efforts.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001