International News and Developments: 1999 - 1998

On December 27th, Turkmenistan became the first of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics to abolish the death penalty. The people's council passed a resolution amending the constitution and removing the death penalty. "Now in our country neither the government nor anyone else has the right to take away human life," said Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. (Reuters, 12/27/99)

After 8 hours of debate, the Bermudan House of Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty in the British territory. Bermuda Premier Jennifer Smith pushed through the controversial proposal, required by Britain under its White Paper on relations with oversees territories. "If we value all life, then when any life is taken it's a tragedy," said Smith in support of the move. (Reuters, 12/18/99)
In response to Bermuda's action, the Colosseum in Rome will likely be lit up. As part of a year-long campaign, the United Nations, Amnesty International, and other groups bathe the Colosseum in light for 48 hours every time a government renounces capital punishment or a death sentence is commuted. It was last lit on December 17, 1999 to honor the commutation of Wendell Flowers by North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt. (New York Times, 12/18/99).

Turkey's efforts to be the first Muslim country to join the European Union may be jeopardized if the Turkish parliament approves the death sentence of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. The Turkish court of appeals recently upheld Ocalan's death sentence, but under Turkish law, he can only be executed if that sentence is approved by parliament.
Shortly after the court announced its decision, European Union spokesperson Jean Christophe Filori said: "We would like to remind Turkey, like other candidate countries, that we expect them to withdraw the death penalty if they are to become member states." In addition, European leaders, who are set to endorse Turkey's candidacy for the European Union next month, have told Turkey that if Ocalan is hanged, its chances of joining the EU will disappear. (Washington Post, 11/26/99)
 

The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari to Michael Domingues (Domingues v. Nevada, 98-8327) who argued that his execution would violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights because he was only 16 years old at the time of his crime. The treaty, which prohibits the execution of juvenile offenders, was ratified by the United States in 1992. However, the U.S. attached a reservation in order to allow the execution of those who committed crimes while under the age of 18. The Court's decision not to review the case is not a decision on the merits of Domingues's claim, which may be raised in other courts.

International Protests

  • Spaniards in Madrid and other cities protested against the U.S. death penalty, particularly citing the case of a Spanish national on death row in Florida, Joaquin Jose Martinez. (CNNinteractive, AP, Nov. 2, 1999)
  • In Oslo, Norway, there were demonstrations against the U.S. death penalty during President Clinton's recent visit. (Reuters, Nov. 1, 1999)
  • Sister Helen Prejean recently spoke in Dublin about the growing international pressure to limit or abolish the death penalty. (Irish Times, Oct. 27, 1999)


In Botswana, in a critical death penalty test case, the court overturned the capital convictions of Mr. Maauwe and Mr. Motswetla, opening the way for a new trial. Raising issues that mirrored death penalty problems in the U.S., the defendants challenged the adequacy of their assigned counsel, but their letter was never placed before the proper court. The Botswana Centre for Human Rights, Ditshwanelo, which represented the defendants on appeal, noted the extremely low pay and lack of experience among lawyers assigned to capital trials. (Botswana Centre for Human Rights, Press Release, Oct. 29, 1999)

Germany announced that it would sue the United States in the International Court of Justice in The Hague for violating international laws and treaties by executing two German foreign nationals earlier this year in Arizona. Germany maintains that brothers Karl and Walter LaGrand were denied consular access, as required by the Vienna Convention. Germany also says that Arizona prosecutors violated the Convention because they knew the defendants were foreign nationals and did not inform German authorities of the arrests and convictions for the 1982 crimes until 1992.
In a rare and open criticism of the United States, German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin said, "The obligation to respect international laws is valid for everyone.... Respecting international law cannot be a one-way street." (Reuters 9/16/99) See also, Foreign Nationals on Death Row.

The U.N. Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights adopted a resolutionthat condemned the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders, i.e., those who committed crimes when they were under age 18. The resolution called on countries that carried out the practice to end it. In a preambular paragraph, the resolution specifically mentioned the United States, Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Yemen, as six countries who executed juvenile offenders in 19 cases since 1990. Ten of those executions occurred in the United States. The preambular paragraph led to extensive debate and statements in vigorous opposition by several of the countries. (Resolution E/CN.4/Sub.2/1999/L.16) (United Nations Press Release, 8/24/99) See also, Statements on the Death Penalty

Yeltsin Commutes All Russian Death Sentences. Boris Yeltsin signed a decree commutingthe death sentence for all of the convicts on Russia's death row. Yeltsin issued the decree today after the presidential commission for pardons reviewed the cases of all 716 convicts on death row and recommended that they be given either life sentences or 25-year prison terms. This move puts additional pressure on the lower house of parliment, the Duma, to pass a long-delayed bill to ban capital punishment. (Associated Press 6/3/99).

The United Nations Human Rights Commission voted in favor of a resolution supporting a worldwide moratorium on executions. The United States voted against the resolution along with 10 other countries including China, Pakistan, Rwanda and Sudan. The resolution calls on countries to restrict the use of the death penalty including not imposing the death penalty for juvenile offenders and limiting the number of offenses for which the death penalty can be imposed. (New York Times, 4/29/99)

Walter LaGrand was executed in Arizona's gas chamber on March 3rd, one week after his brother Karl LaGrand was executed by lethal injection.The brothers are foreign nationals from Germany, which has vigorously protested these executions. Neither brother was informed of his rights under the Vienna Convention to consult with his embassy at the time of arrest. The World Court at The Hague issued a unanimous opinion stating: "The United States of America should take all measures at its disposal to ensure that Walter LaGrand is not executed pending the final decision in these proceedings, and should inform the Court of all the measures it has taken in implementation of this Order." (International Court of Justice, No. 104, March 3, 1999)

The head of the presidential pardons commision in Moscow announced that all of Russia's death row inmates will have their sentences commuted. There have been no executions in Russia since 1996 when President Boris Yeltsin imposed a moratorium following admission to the Council of Europe. In order to secure membership in the Council of Europe, Russia had promised to abolish the death penalty. (Agence France Presse, 2/13/99)

The Philippines executed Leo Echegaray on February 5, 1999, the first execution in the nation since 1976. The death penalty was re-introduced in the Philippines in 1994. The execution follows a lengthy debate throughout the country which is mainly Roman Catholic. (Reuters, 2/5/99)

The President of Malawi recently announced a moratorium on all executions in that country and the commutation of all existing death sentences. He said: "As long as I am in office I will never sign an order of execution. . . . Life is sacred. It is only for God to take, not for me." The announcement followed a high level visit from Amnesty International.

Latvia moved closer to abolishing the death penalty with a committee vote recommending a full parliamentary vote to adopt the section of the European Convention on Human Rights abolishing capital punishment. (Reuters, 1/6/99). In Turkmenistan, the President suspended the death penalty after meeting with members of their Supreme Court. In past years, Turkmenistan has sentenced hundreds of people to death. (Associated Press, 1/6/99)

Amnesty International recently published its "Report 1998", covering the period January to December 1997. In the report, Amnesty recounts its efforts in 1997 to protect the human rights of people worldwide. The report documents human rights abuses that occured in countries and territories throughout the world during, including information on the use of the death penalty.

On Dec. 10, 1998, the 50th anniversary of UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, President Clinton issued an Executive Order stating: "It shall be the policy and practice of the Government of the United States, being committed to the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms, fully to respect and implement its obligations under the international human rights treaties to which it is a party, including the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights], the CAT [Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment], and the CERD [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination]." (Sec.1(a)). For an analysis of how well those treaties are being respected, given the U.S.'s ongoing executions of juvenile offenders, the mentally retarded, those not informed of their rights under the Vienna Convention, and executions influenced by racial discrimination, see DPIC's recent report at the Ford Foundation.

Bulgaria and Lithuania recently joined the growing number of countries without the death penalty. Lithuania's constitutional court found the death penalty to be unconstitutional and Bulgaria's parliament voted legislation to abolish the death penalty.

European Parliament official Alan Donnelly warned of possible economic consequences for U.S. states that continue use of the death penalty. In a letter to Texas Governor George Bush, Mr. Donnelly pointed to the European Parliament's condemnation of the death penalty and stated that "Many companies, under pressure from shareholders and public opinion to apply ethical business practices, are beginning to consider the possibility of restricting the investment in the U.S. to states that do not apply the death penalty." (Source: Catholics Against Capital Punishment News Notes/ July 20, 1998).

The world's nations approved by a vote of 120 to 7 the establishment of an international criminal court to address such offenses as genocide or crimes against humanity. The countries voting in opposition to the court were: United States, Iraq, Libya, Qatar, Yemen, China and Israel.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions has issued a report on the death penalty in the U.S. at the meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rigths. The report found a "significant degree of unfairness and arbitrariness" in the U.S. death penalty, and particularly faulted the execution of juvenile offenders and the mentally retarded. The report called for a moratorium on executions. (N.Y. Times, 4/7/98).

The United Nation's Commission on Human Rights approved a resolution in April, 1998 co-sponsored by 63 nations which calls for a moratorium on the death penalty. Among those voting against the resolution, were U.S., Bangladesh, China, South Korea and Rwanda.

Estonia's parliament voted to ratify an international treaty which obliges the country to end its death penalty. The head of the parliament's legal committee, Daimar Liiv, noted: "This is not 1956 and the evil empire, it's 1998 and we are striving to become one of the cultural nations of the world." (Reuters, 3/18/98).

Azerbaijian's parliament approved a proposal by its president to abolish the death penalty. All 128 people on death row will be given lengthy prison terms. Albania is committed to abolishing the death penalty by June, 1998. On the other hand, Guatemala is imitating the U.S. in using lethal injection for the first time. A peasant, Manuel Martinez was executed on Feb. 10, 1998.

Eduard Shevardnadze, President of Georgia, a former republic of the Soviet Union, announced on July 24, 1997 that all 54 people on that country's death row will have their death sentences commuted. This will expedite Georgia's entry into the Council of Europe which requires its members to end the death penalty.

The 40-nation Council of Europe meeting in Strasbourg called for a ban on the death penalty. The Ukraine, formerly one of the world's leaders in executions, has now halted the death penalty and has been admitted to the Council. Russia suspended all executions in August 1996. South Africa's parliament voted to formally abolish the death penalty, which had earlier been declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.

A new report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Crime and Justice in the United States and in England and Wales, 1981-96," highlights some remarkable differences between the U.S. and England. Comparing 1996 murder rates, the report found the U.S. murder rate to be nearly six times higher than England's. In addition, the use of firearms in violent crimes is more prevalent in the U.S. than in England. Based on 1996 statistics, "firearms were used in 68% of U.S. murders but 7% of English murders, and 41% of U.S. robberies but 5% of English robberies." England abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes in 1973. In crimes for which the death penalty is not used, the U.S. crime rates are similar to or even lower than England's. See also, Deterrence.