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Western Press Review: War In Iraq And U.S. Debate On Death Penalty

  • Don Hill

Prague, 14 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The threat of war in Iraq continues today to dominate commentary in newspapers monitored for our review of Western press opinion, with the British press dissecting remarks by Prime Minister Tony Blair. There is also commentary on both sides of the Atlantic on the death-penalty debate in the United States.

Britain's "The Guardian" and "Financial Times" applaud the action of Illinois Governor George Ryan for commuting the death sentences of 167 prisoners awaiting execution in the state's prisons. "The Wall Street Journal in Europe" denounces Ryan's decision.


"The Guardian" says in an editorial: "By commuting the sentences of all 167 death row inmates in Illinois, Governor George Ryan has set a fine example for the entire United States to follow. Mr. Ryan, a Republican, supported the death penalty when he first took office.

"But a series of shocking miscarriages [of justice] led him to declare a moratorium. An inquiry found that the death penalty in Illinois, as elsewhere, is arbitrarily and inconsistently imposed, that black people are disproportionately penalized, that juvenile and mentally retarded defendants are denied sufficient protections, that legal counsel for the accused is often of poor quality, and that evidential standards are low.

"Thirty-eight of the 50 U.S. states retain the death penalty. But the national trend is inexorably against. Since 1998, the number of death sentences has halved and the reversal rate on appeal is 68 percent. In a country where politicians talk a lot about the importance of doing the right thing, Mr. Ryan just did it. He is a hero."


"The Wall Street Journal in Europe" focuses not so much on the general fairness or lack thereof of the death penalty as on the justification for execution in individual cases. "Elected in 1998 as a pro-death penalty candidate, Governor Ryan explained that he'd become persuaded that the state's system for administering capital punishment is today arbitrary and capricious. The jury's still out on that one. What should be obvious is that a last-minute, blanket clemency is no less arbitrary and capricious, especially given that in the overwhelming number of these cases there is no question of guilt."

The editorial continues: "The good news is that in our system of self-government we have a mechanism to correct bad laws and practices: the legislature. Governor Ryan confesses he was annoyed that the Illinois legislature didn't implement the recommendations of a special death-penalty commission he'd empowered. But legislatures' disagreeing with governors is nothing new. It's called democracy."

It concludes: "Mr. Ryan's defenders argue that his action has jump-started a badly needed national debate on capital punishment. But the governor hasn't given us a debate. He's used a fait accompli to cheat one."


The "Financial Times" in an editorial reviews what it calls "prejudice" and "injustice" in U.S. application of capital punishment, and expresses hope for motion toward reform. "All that leads up to Mr. Ryan's charge that the Illinois death-penalty system is unforgivably arbitrary. The American Bar Association, in a statement released yesterday, distilled the essence of the problem: 'Inequitable administration of justice is no justice at all.' The ABA endorsed [Ryan's] call for the Illinois legislature to reform the state's death-penalty system, as a model for other states to follow. It is far from clear that they will do so: with national public opinion polls still showing about 70 percent support for capital punishment, it will be hard for any politician with a future -- unlike Mr. Ryan -- to take such courageous steps to defy the voters."

The editorial concludes: "In fact, his move may bolster support for executions: some of those who received his mercy committed heinous crimes; sparing them will seem wrong to many Americans. But, at the very least, the outgoing governor's move should reignite public debate over this important issue. Virtually every other civilized country on earth has rejected the death penalty. Perhaps Mr. Ryan's move will prompt at least a reexamination by other U.S. states of the risks of a system based on naked retribution."


An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says that Europe regards capital punishment as "a yardstick for social policies." It says that the United States seems to accept "the matter-of-course independence of a social order to decide on life and death on behalf of the people." The newspaper says that, though there is a growing conviction in the United States that the death penalty should be abolished on moral grounds, "no one should stake false hopes" on such a trend. The editorial says, "The American legal system will continue to recognize the death penalty, and Europe will continue to doubt the reconcilability of such values."

Several British newspapers focus today on Prime Minister Tony Blair's fielding of relentless questions about Iraq at a 10 Downing Street press conference yesterday.


"The Guardian" editorializes that the self-assured prime minister may be misreading British opinion. The newspaper says: "Mr. Blair clearly aimed to send two strong and complementary messages over Iraq. The first was a message to the regime in Baghdad. If Iraqi diplomats had been reporting a weakening of Mr. Blair's authority to carry through his policy -- and if they have been reading the British press over the past week they will have had little alternative -- then the prime minister was determined to disabuse them. Saddam Hussein has the illegal weapons, Mr. Blair said several times, without any qualification and without citing his evidence either."

The newspaper continues: "The second message was to the regime in London. Mr. Blair made few concessions to the skeptics in his cabinet, his government and his party."

The editorial warns that Britain may not be prepared to follow the prime minister's lead. "Mr. Blair should not assume that the skeptics will come meekly and obediently into line, even if the Security Council passes a second resolution. Whatever else one can say about the way the Iraq crisis plays out, it is unlikely to be get any easier, either on the international stage or on the home front."


On a different tack, an editorial in "The Daily Telegraph" applauds Blair's independence. "Tony Blair was at his best yesterday as he set out the case for action against Saddam Hussein. It is not often that we see the prime minister swimming against public opinion. Perhaps more than any of his predecessors, he tends to follow the line of least resistance, guided along it by focus groups and opinion polls. Yet here he is taking on his own party, a majority of newspapers, the churches and the Liberal Democrats. Refreshingly, he is exhibiting true leadership, seeking to convince his opponents rather than compromise with them."


"The Times" also comments approvingly on Blair's stance. "The prime minister sought to restore clarity to his stance on Iraq yesterday after a week in which a series of cabinet members have conspicuously confused matters. Tony Blair wisely avoided either setting odds on a conflict or creating preconditions for British military involvement."

The editorial says: "Mr. Blair largely succeeded in presenting the impression of a coherent and credible policy. He now has to ensure that his colleagues maintain sufficient discipline among themselves not to undermine that position."

It adds that the prime minister must avoid a commitment of no war without Security Council approval. "He would win short-term plaudits within the Labour Party, and, in truth, well beyond his fellow partisans, if he were to announce that he would refuse to support any military intervention that was not explicitly sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. There are a number of substantial reasons, however, why such an undertaking would be a miscalculation."


"The Independent's" Donald Macintyre says in an editorial that Blair is risking much on the findings of the UN inspectors in Iraq. The writer says that two conclusions flow from the UN role: "The first is that Mr. Blair will be in deep domestic trouble if there is a dispute with the UN Security Council over whether the material breach has occurred, and there is no second resolution sanctioning war."

Macintyre writes that the second conclusion follows inescapably: "If Mr. Blair is vindicated, as he appears optimistic he will be, and Dr. Blix produces the kind of evidence that makes UN support for action to enforce its own resolution irresistible, then much of the current opposition to the war, trapped by its own logic, will have nowhere else to go. In that sense Mr. Blair was right to say yesterday that the U.S. decision -- so far -- to follow the UN route was a two-way street. Such a war wouldn't be one that many people on this side of the Atlantic want, from the Parliamentary Labour Party to most of the Arab world. But it would then -- and only then -- be possible for Mr. Blair to champion it as a war to enforce the credibility of the UN as well as to disarm Saddam Hussein."


In the U.S. press, "The Christian Science Monitor" warns in an editorial against applying too much pressure on Turkey to support a U.S.-led war effort. "Except for Britain, no hesitant ally means more to a U.S.-led war effort than NATO member Turkey. As Iraq's northern neighbor, Turkey played a major role as a staging ground in the 1991 Gulf War."

The editorial says: "With thousands of U.S. combat troops shipping out to the Middle East, it might seem time is of the essence here. It is. But so is patience."

It continues: "With last week's belated decision to allow the United States to inspect Turkish ports and military bases to gear up for possible invasion, Ankara has taken a right step. But Washington also needs to let nervous Nellies like Turkey do what they need to do to present the most united front possible. If that means delay, so be it. The most successful diplomatic -- or military -- pressure is getting as many allies as possible to bear down on Iraq."

The editorial concludes: "Washington can use many levers on nations such as Turkey to bring them into a war coalition. But such diplomacy slips over a line when it forces nations to do what they're not prepared to do."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)