Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution condemning the death penalty for, among other reasons, “the imposition of the death penalty as a sanction for specific forms of conduct, such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations. Even though it passed, the U.S. voted against the resolution. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley clarified the vote, saying in a tweet that “We have always fought for justice for the LGBT community” and the State Department said that the vote was no because of “broader concerns” in condemning the death penalty in all circumstances. Despite this clarification, I am still concerned with the United States’ continued support of the death penalty.
To be clear, the U.S. is not in favor of sentencing gay people to death for their sexual orientation, but this vote demonstrates that this country still supports the death penalty. The last time this resolution was on the U.N. floor—under the Obama administration the U.S. also voted no. The reason is simply that the death penalty is still in use in our own country. I agree that it would then be hypocritical to vote for this resolution, but my larger concern is why we find ourselves in this position. We did not misconstrue this motion; we understood it fully in that it labeled the death penalty as a violation of human rights because of the people it targets.
The death penalty is an LGBTQ issue and a women’s issue specifically because in other countries such as Saudi Arabia and China, it is used to silence those groups, keep them subordinate and threaten their existence. While the U.S. does not target these groups specifically, we do put black inmates on death row at a disproportionately higher rate than we do white inmates. Only 13 percent of the US population is black, but 42 percent of the death row population is. We use the death penalty to suppress one of our own minorities, yet this prevents us from protecting the rights of others all around the globe. Ignoring the usual arguments over whether or not capital punishment is ethical or effective, it is now preventing us from protecting the LGBTQ community from one of the most immediate and direct threats to their lives. There is no way that we as a country can truly support them or state that “we have always fought for justice” for them. Indeed, our own vice president believes that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured through conversion therapy. We are then led to believe that this administration is using empty words and that its commitment to the LGBTQ community is not real.
In 2001, an opinion piece appeared in The New York Times denouncing the death penalty because it does not deter crime, and because there have been multiple cases of wrongfully convicted individuals ending up on death row. It is 16 years later, but many concerns remain. Despite continued criticism from our allies and the decrease in the popularity of the death penalty declining in the U.S., we continue to uphold this policy. Almost all of Europe and South America has abolished the death penalty, either in law or in practice. Our continued support means that countries will not extradite criminals to us and that our very entry into the UNHRC was delayed because of our continued use of the death penalty.
The use of capital punishment is detrimental to people in this country, allowing us to target minorities legally and kill innocent people. We cannot deny that it is also detrimental to people abroad. This resolution, as with so many human rights resolutions, was a choice of priorities. A country can choose to maintain its absolute sovereignty or choose to agree with the rest of the world and commit to fighting for international human rights. We chose to uphold our unjust policy. That is a long road that can lead to questionable decisions and that lacks self reflection. The United States is so committed to the idea of “an eye for an eye” justice that we are willing to put unjust and cruel deaths aside in order to preserve our policy of the death penalty.