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Examine how the Death Penalty in America Violates Human Rights

Illustrate your essay with specific examples.

The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, is the sentence that can be given to a convicted criminal by the state for certain crimes commonly known as capital crimes. The death penalty, where it is practiced, is used for a plethora of crimes including; murder, treason, rape and even for adultery and sodomy. Although not all choose to practice capital punishment, of the fifty States of America thirty seven of them still have the death penalty as a legitimate punishment. The United States is in fact the last major industrialised country to use the death penalty.

Despite arguments that capital punishment is not a human rights issue the death penalty has been one of the biggest concerns of human rights NGOs for the past few decades. This paper shall address what the core human rights issues are in relation to the death penalty. It shall also outline what mechanisms, if any, there are prohibiting violations of such rights. The campaigns of NGO's, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and their efforts to abolish the death penalty shall also be assessed along with the theory of American Exceptionalism.

There are many organisations whose sole purpose, or one the main purposes, of its being is to persuade and lobby governments and the UN to pass legislation that will lead to the global abolition of the death penalty. Two of the most notable of these organisations are Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW). AI have various ways in which they campaign and try to change laws; "Our members, supporters and staff around the world mobilize the public to put pressure on governments and others with influence to stop the abuses. Activities range from public demonstrations to letter-writing; from human rights education to fundraising concerts; from approaches to local authorities to lobbying at intergovernmental organizations; from targeted appeals on behalf of a single individual to global campaigns for global change." ( The extensive research done by HRW also aims to be publicised heavily in the media so as to embarrass governments who are abusive as well as setting up meetings with domestic officials as well as international organisations such as the UN to inform them and urge them to do all they can to change policies and laws. One such recent campaign, by AI, was to encourage people to sign a petition that would show support for a proposed moratorium on all executions. In a vote at the UN's General Assembly 99 voted in favour of the resolution on the 15th November 2007 and is expected to endorse the decision in December 2007. It will not be legally binding on states but, as with all UN Resolutions, carries a significant amount of moral and political weight meaning those who fail to comply can be 'named and shamed' which leads to embarrassment of the state and encourages yet more pressure to be put on the state to comply and halt the use of the death penalty. From this we can conclude that these organisations do play a vital role in the effort to try and abolish the death penalty from; getting members of the public to lobby their local politicians, to urging those at an international level that the death penalty is not only unconstitutional but a violation of basic human rights.

The last point we shall briefly assess is the theory of American Exceptionalism. The issue is a vast and complex one but in brief the term 'American Exceptionalism' came about due to the fact that when faced with international human rights issues the US has been a leader in trying to eradicating violations but at the same time has been guilty of violating internationally recognised human rights on a domestic level. The consensus appears to be that they will only abide by international law when it suits the 'interests' of the government of America. The reason as to why some Americans believe that they do not have to adhere to international human rights is varied; some believe God had chosen the land and people and deemed them special, other believe it is because the US has been one of the leading forces in technology etc therefore making the American way the right way. If we accept this theory of moral relativism it can become a slippery slope for any state to not act in any way that they choose if they believe that a higher power has chosen them to be special or because they are the leaders in various types of technology. Most would not like to be likened to a moral relativist and therefore it cannot be the case that the death penalty is wrong and a violation of the right to life in one country but not in America.

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