On Sept. 29, the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning the unjust application of the death penalty worldwide. At the vote in Geneva, 13 of 47 council members voted against the resolution, including the United States.
Coverage of this resolution has mainly focused on its language opposing the death penalty as punishment for homosexuality. Major news outlets such as CNN and the Independent all ran incredulous headlines highlighting the apparent anti-LGBTQ+ elements of the vote.
But there’s more to this resolution: it also asserts that religious crimes such as blasphemy, speaking against one’s religion and apostasy, renouncing one’s religious or political beliefs, are never capital offenses and condemns executions of pregnant women, minors and the mentally ill and the disproportionate use of capital punishment against the poor, minorities and political dissidents. The United States’ failure to support this last point is particularly frustrating. Voting against this resolution goes against a fundamental tenet of American democracy: religious freedom.
This vote has inspired considerable backlash, and, in response, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement, “We had hoped for a balanced and inclusive resolution that would better reflect the positions of states that continue to apply the death penalty lawfully, as the United States does.”
Nauert cited the resolution’s advocacy for total abolition of the death penalty as a reason for the “no” vote — despite none of the resolution’s text explicitly calling for complete elimination, only referencing a moratorium supported by the U.N. since 2007. This unsubstantiated justification only makes the vote more disturbing. The United States prides itself on freedom of speech and religion, and seeks to promote human rights abroad. So why is it so wedded to the continued use of the death penalty that it prioritizes its ability to kill its citizens over protecting people persecuted by oppressive, bloodthirsty regimes around the world?
This sort of vote is nothing new; similar votes were made during the Barack Obama administration. This precedent doesn’t excuse this vote, but rather highlights the hypocrisy of the nominally pro-LGBTQ+ Obama administration. Such votes have harmful consequences for LGBTQ+ people and other persecuted minorities, which can’t be hand-waved away. If the United States sincerely “unequivocally condemns the application of the death penalty for conduct such as homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery and apostasy,” as Nauert claimed, passing up these opportunities to take concrete actions to that effect is baffling and upsetting.
Moreover, capital punishment will only breed more injustice upon its practical application, as evidenced by the goals of the UN resolution — to protect those most vulnerable from being unfairly affected.
“The color of a defendant and victim’s skin plays a crucial and unacceptable role in deciding who receives the death penalty in America,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in an analysis of race and capital punishment. This analysis showed that 77 percent of inmates on the U.S. government’s death row are people of color. Not only is the death penalty more likely to be applied when the convict is a minority, it’s also more likely when the victim is white. It’s unsurprising, then, that the United States would vote against a resolution “[d]eploring the fact that, frequently, poor and economically vulnerable persons and … religious or ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented among those sentenced to the death penalty[.]” Even under a president whose campaign made deplorability a rallying cry, why would a state vote to deplore its own conduct?
I personally oppose the death penalty unconditionally; I believe that killing is always wrong, that capital punishment only increases total suffering and, in Pope Francis’ words, “attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”
But even if the United States doesn’t share this view, it should still recognize human rights as more important than the option to execute. At the very least, it should stand for its apparent values, rather than grandstanding one way and acting another.
This vote exposes a hollow and moldering pit where the heart and backbone of America’s moral leadership should be. Every nation on Earth has a duty to advocate for human rights. Because America’s influence and affluence increase the potential effectiveness of its advocacy, the severity of that moral imperative is also increased. Choosing not to join the U.N. in condemning unjust executions is a failure of that duty, and a cruel and unusual hypocrisy that undermines American posturing as a defender of human rights.
If the United States wants to be a part of the humane, optimistic future that the rest of the world dares to envision, we can start by reforming or, even better, abolishing our use of the death penalty — and then advocating for similar reform abroad. It’s the right thing to do.