UNITED NATIONS, Jan 22 (IPS) – In a bygone era, public executions of condemned prisoners were common in certain parts of the United States where the death penalty, mostly with lethal injections, is still in force now.
The hangings, at the turn of the century, apparently were open to the public and the media.
As a prisoner was about to be hanged in the state of Louisiana in the 1950s, according to an anecdote, the Sheriff asked the customary question: “Any last word?” “No”, retorted the condemned man.
But the governor, who was also present at the hanging, wanted to extract some political mileage on his “tough-on-crime” policy, and chipped in: “May I then use your time to make a speech?”, he asked the prisoner.
“Hang me first,” retorted the condemned man, “Make your speech later.”
Although the moral of the story is that some people may rather die than listen to a politician’s drivel, it also points to the fact that the US is one of the few countries in the Western world that has continued to enforce capital punishment with a vengeance.
Last week the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was “alarmed” by the imminent execution in the United States of Kenneth Eugene Smith, through the use of a novel and untested method -– suffocation by nitrogen gas, “which could amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international human rights law.”
The UN Human Rights Office (HRO) called on Alabama’s state authorities to halt Smith’s execution, scheduled for 25-26 January, and to refrain from taking steps towards any other executions in this manner.
“Nitrogen gas has never been used in the United States to execute human beings. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends giving even large animals a sedative when being euthanized in this manner, while Alabama’s protocol for execution by nitrogen asphyxiation makes no provision for sedation of human beings prior to execution”.
The protocol, HRO said, also refers to the odourless and colourless gas being administered for up to 15 minutes. Smith has also advanced, with expert evidence, that such an execution by gas asphyxiation, in his case, risks particular pain and suffering.
According to a report on Cable News Network (CNN) on January 21, Alabama is scheduled to carry out the nation’s first execution by nitrogen hypoxia, an alternative to lethal injection.
Kenneth Eugene Smith’s execution by lethal injection was abruptly canceled in November after the state couldn’t properly set the IV line before the warrant for execution expired.
He asked the state to be put to death by nitrogen gas rather than lethal injection after what he called a botched execution, said CNN.
Death by nitrogen hypoxia deprives the brain and body of oxygen, so the inmate would die by suffocation, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that monitors, analyzes and disseminates information about capital punishment.
Smith was convicted along with an accomplice for the 1988 killing of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett in a murder-for-hire plot.
The death penalty has existed in the United States since colonial times and its history is intertwined with slavery, segregation, and social reform movements, according to the DPI Center.
The Office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights said: “We have serious concerns that Smith’s execution in these circumstances could breach the prohibition on torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as his right to effective remedies”.
These are rights set out in two International Human Rights treaties where the United States is bound by – the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The Human Rights Committee, the UN body charged with monitoring implementation of the Covenant, has also criticized the use of asphyxiation by gas as an execution method, the use of untested methods, as well as widening the use of the death penalty in States that continue to apply it.
“The death penalty is inconsistent with the fundamental right to life. There is an absence of proof that it deters crime, and it creates an unacceptable risk of executing innocent people. Rather than inventing new ways to implement capital punishment, we urge all States to put in place a moratorium on its use, as a step towards universal abolition”.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 1,582 men and women have been executed in the United States since the 1970s, although executions have declined significantly over the past two decades. Most executions have been concentrated in a few states and a small number of outlier counties.
Last October, the UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Morris Tidball-Binz, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Alice Jill Edwards, reiterated their call for the complete abolition of the death penalty.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International, a leading human rights organization, says the death penalty breaches human rights, in particular the right to life and the right to live free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Both rights are protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948.
The countries that currently maintain the death penalty include Singapore, Japan, the United States, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, the Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Belarus, Malaysia, and Thailand.
In 2022, the five countries with the highest number of people executed were, in descending order: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the US.
IPS UN Bureau Report
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