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U.S.: EU Differs Widely On Death Penalty Issue

  • Robert McMahon

The United States and European Union states are allied on a number of key human rights issues, but they have fundamentally different views on the question of capital punishment. A diplomat from Sweden, the EU's current president and a new member of the UN Human Rights Commission, discusses the significance of this trans-Atlantic divide with RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon.

United Nations, 17 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European Union officials are strongly objecting to the mounting spectacle surrounding the planned execution of Timothy McVeigh next month in the United States.

The EU bans the death penalty and considers it a human rights violation, even in response to crimes as devastating as the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. EU states have long lobbied for the United States to halt executions carried out in many of its states. Carina Martensson is a counselor at Sweden's mission to the United Nations who specializes in human rights issues. She says plans to broadcast McVeigh's execution on closed-circuit television to about 300 relatives and survivors shows that U.S. officials have taken the practice too far.

U.S. officials say they have authorized the closed-circuit broadcast to try to help the victims gain a sense of closure with the six-year-old tragedy.

Martensson says that the McVeigh execution seems to be legitimizing the practice of vengeance. She told our correspondent:

"The U.S., which is normally a country which is rather close to us -- that such discussions would even take place today is to us somewhat surprising. But then on the other hand, it's not like we're unaware of the horrible crimes being committed and all the complexities involved in that. But we do expect more of the U.S., so to speak, than some other countries in the world."

Martensson stresses that the United States and EU are united on many issues. She also acknowledges the U.S. position that applying the death penalty does not violate international law. But she says U.S. states have been carrying out the policy in a way that violates international safeguards on issues such as prosecuting juveniles for capital punishment or executing prisoners considered to be mentally retarded.

U.S. officials regularly defend the administration of the death penalty as conforming to international obligations and reflecting the will of the American people. Martensson says that EU states challenge both the morality and practicality of capital punishment.

"It's inhumane and cruel, and in many senses it's comparable to torture. It's irreversible and it shouldn't have a place in a modern legal system and we do feel that there should be total abolition. But in the meantime we look at reducing the number of sentences."

As current president of the EU, Sweden is planning to use the media attention on the McVeigh execution to publicize concerns it has about the U.S. death penalty. But Martensson denies media reports that EU states conspired to keep the United States off the UN Human Rights Commission because of differing positions on issues such as the death penalty.

The recent vote in the UN Economic and Social Council removed the United States from the rights panel for the first time since its founding in 1947. Sweden, France, and Austria received more votes in the competition for three seats from the regional grouping they share with the United States.

Martensson says she fully expected the United States to be voted onto the panel and that Sweden was competing with its two other EU counterparts for the remaining two seats from the region.

"We never thought that we were competing against the U.S. and we expected that, in the end, they would lobby enough in order to be part of it. We thought that we were competing amongst each other."

The death penalty is not the only issue on which Washington and the EU states have differed recently. U.S. opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the banning of land mines, and the setting up of an international criminal court are seen as other major issues dividing the traditional trans-Atlantic friends.

Well before the human rights commission vote, the U.S. State Department noted a widening gap between the votes of the United States and those of Europe. In 1997, U.S. and EU member votes were the same about 73 percent of the time but that percentage fell to 62.5 percent last year.

Martensson says there were also clear differences between the two sides at this year's human rights commission meeting in Geneva, which concluded in April. Those factors, she said, could have contributed to the U.S. ouster from the commission.

"One-third of the cases where resolutions were voted on (at the rights panel in Geneva), the U.S. voted in a different manner than the rest of the Western Group and those type of things could, of course, be part of the consideration. But it's really difficult to tell."

Martensson notes that more than half of the UN's 189 members have now abolished the death penalty. She says the EU tries to promote the ban as a rite of passage for young democracies. But she says the position of the United States, which is also a model to nations in transition, complicates this issue.