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2003 | 55th Regular Session of the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights (28 July - 15 August 2003)

Discrimination on the use of death penalty: the urgency for abolition

Fifty-fifth Session, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 28 July – 15 August 2003Dominicans for Justice and Peace, Pax Christi International, Dominican Leadership Conference and Congregations of St. Joseph, in conjunction with Franciscans International, again raise the issue of ongoing discrimination in the application and the use of the death penalty. A number of Dominican congregations and institutions in the United States have adopted a corporate stance advocating the abolition of the death penalty.

Since 1997, the UN Commission on Human Rights has adopted resolutions asking for a moratorium on the death penalty. At present, over 100 of the member states of the United Nations have called for an end to the death penalty or a moratorium on its practice.

We also take note of a development in respect to the death penalty in the United States. In January 2002, in an unprecedented move, the Governor of the state of Illinois, George Ryan, calling the state’s death penalty system “arbitrary and capricious, and therefore immoral,” commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates, including four women. His act marked the broadest attack on the death penalty in the United States in decades. In congratulating the Governor on his action, Walter Schwimmer, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe stated: “On making this decision, he proves a shared commitment and belief with the Council of Europe, that the death penalty has no place in a civilized society.” In a related statement, the President of Mexico Vicente Fox thanked Governor Ryan for commuting the death sentences of the condemned inmates, including three Mexicans.

Discrimination in its application

In calling for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, we express our deep concern about its unjust and unequal application. In countries where the death penalty continues to be enacted, it is more likely to be applied in a racist manner, more likely to be applied to minorities and the underclasses in general. Poor people, disabled people and young people are more often subjected to capital punishment.

In her working paper, entitled Discrimination in the criminal justice system, Ms Leïla Zerrougui makes the following statement: All the mechanisms for the monitoring or protection of human rights denounce the abnormally high rates of victimization and detention of Afro-Americans, Aborigines, Dalits, Roma, children of indigenous peoples and migrant workers and other communities stigmatized by age-old structural injustices in several regions of the world. (E/CN.4/Sub.2/2002/5, note 41, page 20)

The case of Javier Suarez Medina, a young Mexican national who was scheduled for execution in Texas on August 14, 2002 is an excellent illustration of this ongoing discrimination In relation to his case, it is important to note that last years Sub-Commission played a significant role both in raising awareness about Medina and in focusing the debate more pointedly on the inherent injustice of the death penalty.

Sentenced to death when he was only 19 years old, Javier Suarez Medinas case raised deeply troubling questions about the fairness of his trial and the ongoing refusal of Texas authorities to respect their binding international treaty obligations. After 13 years on death row, Javier had exhausted all normal avenues of legal appeal. At the time of the Sub-Commissions intervention in August 2002,, unless the courts or the Governor of Texas intervened, he faced death by lethal injection despite mounting concerns over the reliability of his sentence.

In Medinas case, the US authorities did not comply with their obligations pursuant to Article 36 of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations which guarantee consular assistance for foreign detainees. In short, Medina was not notified by US authorities of his right, recognized under international law, to consular assistance from the Mexican Government. Moreover, these obligations had been strongly reaffirmed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in its Advisory Opinion OC-16/99 of 1 October 1, 1999, The Right to Information on Consular Assistance in the Framework of the Guarantees of the Due Process of Law, and by the International Court of Justice in its Judgment in the LaGrand case (Germany v. United States) on June 27, 2001.

Furthermore, Javier Suarez Medinas death sentence was based upon unadjudicated offenses or crimes he was not proven to have committed. Although he was indeed proven to have murdered a man, though under circumstances not punishable by death under Texas law, the prosecution used unsubstantiated evidence irrelevant to the trial to secure a death sentence. The use of such evidence is not only inadmissible in numerous US states (such as Alabama, Florida and Maryland), but violates the international obligations of the US Government to respect fundamental human rights standards which it has ratified and pledged to uphold.

In response to a request to study the case, the Sub-Commission, following examination of the pertinent information, adopted a Chairmans statement asking for the United States to reprieve Javiers execution and re-examine his case, guaranteeing his right to benefit from consular assistance and his right to a fair trial.

Following the Sub-Commissions action, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Mary Robinson sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell urging that the case be reviewed. Shortly afterward, the President of Mexico intervened personally on behalf of Javier asking the state of Texas to postpone the execution. Additionally, 13 countries, eleven in Latin America and two in Europe, had pleaded for a reprieve.

Despite unprecedented and urgent interventions by the Sub-Commission, the High Commissioner, the President of Mexico, governments, international organizations and hundreds of individuals, Javier Suárez Medina was executed by lethal injection on August 14, 2002, in Huntsville, Texas. The execution was allowed to proceed after the United States Supreme Court denied the final appeal put forward by the government of Mexico and after the Governor of Texas refused to grant a reprieve.

Immediately following the execution, the President of Mexico canceled his trip to Texas and his visit with the President of the United States. The Mexican Presidents office stated that the decision to cancel was an unequivocal sign of their rejection of the execution. It added that Mexico was confident the cancellation of this important presidential visit will contribute to strengthen the respect of all states for international rights norms and the conventions that regulate relations between nations.

On February 5, 2003, six months after Javiers execution, in a decision about a dispute concerning alleged violations of Articles 5 and 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 24 April 1963 with respect to 54 Mexican nationals who had been sentenced to death in certain States of the United State, the International Criminal Court, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, unanimously adopted an Order indicating provisional measures, in the case of Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mexico v . United States of America). In that Order, the Court decided that the “United States of America shall take all measures necessary to ensure that Mr. César Roberto Fierro Reyna, Mr. Roberto Moreno Ramos and Mr. Osvaldo Torres Aguilera, [of Mexican nationality], are not executed pending final judgment in these proceedings”; that the “United States of America shall inform the Court of all measures taken in implementation of this Order”; and that the Court would remain seized of the matters which formed the subject of the Order until it had rendered its final judgment.

Unfortunately, because of the finality of the death penalty, this decision was of no benefit to Javier Suarez Medina.

Respect for all human life, the opposition to violence in our society and the injustice of the death penalty are at the root of our long standing position against the death penalty. We see the death penalty as perpetuating a cycle of violence and promoting a sense of vengeance in our culture. To continue to enact the death penalty is to teach that violence and killing are acceptable ways of dealing with violence and killing. Restoration of society and the healing of victims, as well as reform and rehabilitation of the offenders, must be the goals of a criminal justice system.

Therefore, Dominicans for Justice and Peace, Pax Christi International, Dominican Leadership Conference and Congregations of St. Joseph, in conjunction with Franciscans International:

  • commend the UN Sub-Commission for raising the case of Javier Suarez Medina by adopting a Chairpersons statement related to the issue, at its 54th Session in 2002;
  • recognize the government of Mexicos concern for and persistent work on behalf of Mexican citizens on death row in the United States;
  • encourage all governments to abolish the death penalty and to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on civil and political rights, which requires governments to put an end to capital punishment in their countries;
  • encourage the government of the United States to abide by the International Criminal Courts Order indicating provisional measures, dated February 5, 2003;
  • urge governments to seek alternatives to the death penalty that reflect intelligence, civility, compassion and justice;
  • support the study on discrimination in the criminal justice system and the conceptual framework for the study as outlined in the paper presented at this UN Sub-Commission by the expert Leïla Zerrougui
  • support the moratorium called for by Pope John Paul II in a 1998 address, the US Bishops call for the abolition of the death penalty as well as the international initiative, Moratorium Now, a movement organized to suspend all executions.
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