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New UN Report Denounces Washington
America's Human Rights Record|
New UN Report Denounces Washington
by Stephen Lendman
Global Research, June 15, 2009
On May 26, the UN Human Rights Council issued a report titled "Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development - Report of the Special Rapporteur (Philip Alston) on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions."
Alston was damning in his criticism regarding "three areas in which significant improvement is necessary if the US Government is to match its actions to its stated commitment to human rights and the rule of law:"
(1) Its imposition of the death penalty under which innocent people are executed. Alston was shocked about "glaring criminal justice system flaws," citing Texas and Alabama as examples, but many other states are as derelict. He criticized politicized judges and recommended that Congress "should enact legislation permitting federal court habeas review of state and federal death penalty cases on their merits."
He condemned the 2006 Military Commissions Act and its provisions that violate international human rights and humanitarian law with regard to due process and fairness.
(2) America needs "greater transparency into law enforcement, military, and intelligence operations that result in unlawful deaths." Domestically, it provides inadequate information about deaths of immigrants and other detainees, but the worst failures are in international military and intelligence operations.
(3) The government fails to "provide greater accountability for potentially unlawful deaths in its international operations." It ignores civilian casualties, both their number and conditions under which they occur, and fails to provide ordinary people, including US citizens, with basic information regarding investigations and prosecutions when laws were violated. It fails to assure safeguards are in place to prevent so-called collateral damage - that is, civilians wrongfully (and at times willfully) targeted and killed.
Overall, "there have been chronic and deplorable accountability failures with respect to policies, practices and conduct that (cause) alleged unlawful killings - including possible war crimes - in the United States' international operations." Effective investigations have been lacking and guilty parties, throughout the chain of command, haven't been punished. Even worse, private contractors and civilian intelligence personnel have been granted "a zone of impunity" because of failures to hold them accountable. Alston recommends a national "commission of inquiry" and a special prosecutor to conduct thorough investigations "independent of the pressure on the political branches of Government."
More on this below.
In June 2008, Alston spent two week in America meeting with federal and state officials, judges and civil society groups, as well as victims and witnesses in five US cities. As a signatory to international human rights laws, including the four Geneva Conventions, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Convention against Torture, the US is bound by their provisions and required to hold its civilians and military personnel accountable when they violate them.
The federal government, 35 states, and US military impose death penalties, often executing innocent people for failing to assure proper due process and fairness. Alston addressed the federal death penalty and its application in Texas and Alabama, the former for its largest number of US executions, the latter for having the nation's highest per capita rate of them.
Yet since 1973, 130 death row inmates nationwide were exonerated, and their numbers keep growing. Since 1977, 13 in Illinois were also declared innocent and freed, a state where governor George Ryan took unprecedented steps:
-- on January 31, 2000, he declared a moratorium on further executions after acknowledging a deeply flawed system under which innocent men and women are executed;
-- then in January 2003, he commuted the sentences of all 156 death row prisoners - an action only matched by the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia (June 29, 1972) when it struck down capital punishment at the state and federal levels, calling existing statutes unconstitutional, "arbitrary and capricious," and commuted the sentences of all 629 inmates on death row - until it reinstated it in Gregg v. Georgia on July 2, 1976.
Ever since, well over 1100 executions took place and three times that number await them on death row. Far too often they're innocent victims of injustice, people of color, poor, and unable to effectively deal with a hostile prosecutorial system, at least because:
-- inadequate laws and/or practices don't protect them "governing the preservation of evidence (including DNA) or because of the passage of time;"
-- after convictions, some state laws disallow use of DNA evidence; to countermand this, a federal law should mandate it as standard procedure;
-- in some cases, biological evidence isn't relevant; and
-- in others, "evidentiary or procedural issues preclude a just or reliable basis for imposing the death penalty."
The result is a deeply flawed criminal justice system affecting victims, their families, and communities when real criminals remain at large. Yet government officials are often indifferent to the problem, at both state and federal levels. Alston recommends changes:
-- action to address the lack of judicial independence and inadequate right to counsel;
-- a top-to-bottom criminal justice system analysis and overhaul followed by reforms, especially for racial disparities in capital cases; and
-- federal court reviews of all injustice claims when capital punishment is at issue.
Unfortunately, Alston doesn't challenge the death penalty but believes federal and state laws should only impose it for the "most serious crimes." However, who's to decide and on what basis.
He also says foreign nationals denied the right to consular notification were unfairly treated and should be provided review and reconsideration.
Texas, Alabama, and other states "have partisan elections for judges." However, "as research and practice show," this system "jeopardizes the right of capital defendants to a fair trial and appeal." Also, there's a direct correlation between public support for the death penalty and decisions made to impose it. "There is no such correlation in non-elective states." State officials told Alston that getting re-elected depends on supporting the death penalty and imposing it from the bench - even at times by overriding jury decisions for life in prison.
Right to Counsel
The right is fundamental but not applied if counsel quality is poor, as so often is the case when court-appointed or low-income defendants can't afford better representation. State funding to provide it is inadequate, and one Texas official told Alston that defense counsel competency in the state is "abysmal." Major reforms are needed to repair a broken system, in Texas and nationwide.
Persons of color in America are most vulnerable to receive death sentences in capital cases - especially if victims are white. Yet federal and state officials are indifferent to the problem or deny one exists. When confronted with evidence from various studies, they claim they were conducted by anti-death penalty advocates and dismiss the results. It's never been a good time to be poor, black, or Latino in America, especially when confronted by a hostile criminal justice system claiming to be impartial.
Systematic Evaluation of the Criminal Justice System
Far too little is done at the state or federal levels to ensure wrongful death penalties aren't imposed. Their frequency demands serious redress - firm measures to halt injustices this grave.
Federal Habeas Corpus Review
Habeas suits can be filed in federal courts to challenge death penalty convictions, but not easily. The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) denies them on many grounds, imposes a six-month statute of limitation for filing, and restricts access to federal evidentiary hearings. Other problems also exist that limit defendants' rights even when wrongfully convicted - such as emphasizing "finality" over the right of due process and fairness. Serious reform measures are needed to redress this.
Most Serious Crimes
The definition is vague and applies to an intention to kill resulting in the loss of life as determined by a judge and jury. However, capital punishment may be imposed for crimes like running large illegal drug operations according to the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act. Other crimes as well, including treason, terrorism, rape, kidnapping, and in the military for desertion or mutiny.