In recent years the news, across the differing mediums of newspapers, magazines, television shows and websites, has been dominated by various issues such as the economy, our two undeclared wars, Arab uprisings, WikiLeaks, and the death penalty. While it may not appear so at first, all of these news topics are connected by their impact on international relations. The one which would most likely draw second glances from the above list is the death penalty, but it does indeed affect our dealings with other nations.
The death penalty is reserved for the most extreme cases in the United States, only applicable to mentally stable adults who have committed a murder—whether or not that murder requires aggravating circumstances varies by state. While an “ugly American” may believe that most other nations practice this form of punishment, the truth is that we are in small company in this regard, and the company we keep is not good.
The list of nations which practice the death penalty is only getting smaller as about one or two nations abolish it each year, as shown by Amnesty International. The remaining nations with which we can be associated through this common practice includes only one other Western nation, Japan. Others on the list include such paragons of human rights as Iran, China, Somalia, Sudan, North Korea, and Afghanistan. While I am not arguing with the practice itself, the continuation of the death penalty hinders our ability to maintain a moral high ground over these nations.
Our government finds itself in a situation where it must criticize a foreign nation for its human rights abuses, but more often than not, that nation will share with us what many activists and organizations believe to be the most egregious human right offense: the death penalty. This can compromise our ability to protect the citizens of that nation, regardless of what offense its government is inflicting upon those citizens.
The loss of our moral superiority, once openly wielded as a powerful international weapon, has played a companion role to the weakening economy as factors in our decreasing ability to act as global hegemon. This moral vacuum has an impact worldwide, as it creates openings for nations to behave as children do when the parents are away. China’s posturing in the east Pacific, Iran’s flaunting of U.N. conventions and sanctions, and even Europe’s increasingly radical xenophobic response to Muslim immigrants all may have been preventable if we could position ourselves as a guardian of rights worldwide. This role, however, is impossible for us to fulfill as long as a current still runs through Old Sparky.
In NATO’s involvement in the Libyan affair, the United States willingly took a backseat role to France and Great Britain. While this was undeniably influenced by the decreased amount of money our military would be obligated to spend if we were in charge, this shift of responsibility to the old powers of France and the U.K. could be seen by some as the weakening of America’s moral ground and our inability to muster support for our plans.
Not only does our moral standing decay with every dose of execution cocktail coursing through the veins of condemned inmates, but we also put our own people at risk aboard. A clear example of this comes from the stereotypically gung-ho state of Texas. Seventeen years ago Texas authorities arrested Humberto Leal Garcia, Jr. for rape and murder. He was held, given court-appointed attorneys, and was later sentenced to death. While this is not strange or uncalled for in a regular scenario, this was anything but normal. Garcia was a Mexican citizen which entitled him to legal help from the Mexican consulate under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, signed by one hundred and seventy three nations, including the U.S. and Mexico. Texas authorities neither notified nor granted Garcia these rights. While the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, and countless activists protested, Garcia was executed on July 7th, 2011.
Texas’ blatant disregard for the Vienna Convention creates a dark world of possibilities for U.S. citizens worldwide. Euna Lee and Laura Ling, the two American journalists held in North Korea for espionage, have both widely credited the Vienna Convention as protecting them and providing hope during their ordeal in the harsh dictatorship of North Korea. Iran has even granted captives rights under the Vienna Convention, most notably regarding the two American hikers held for espionage activities. The U.S. itself has sued to the International Court of Justice for the recognition of its citizens abroad Vienna Convention rights.
The ICJ was consulted in Garcia’s case and ruled in favor of Mexico, stating that Texas must give the rights to Garcia and other similar prisoners, but Texas simply ignored the international community, an incredibly dangerous move. Not only does such an action weaken the perception of strength that the ICJ carries, thus making decisions issued by the Court more likely to be ignored by other nations, it also will lower the resolve of foreign nations to ratify treaties with us as they will fear that we will ignore them as Texas has ignored the Vienna Convention.
Our descent from the supposed peak of moral responsibility is not the only side effect of our collective refusal to take capital punishment laws off the books. Now, as a result of nearly every other nation’s abolishment of the death penalty, murderers can attempt to flee the borders of the United States and seek refuge in a foreign nation, often which will refuse to extradite the criminal. Their unwillingness can be explained very simply and rationally: They forbid the death penalty in their country and handing over the fugitive, if he or she is convicted of murder could very likely face the death penalty, would essentially sign his or her death warrant. Therefore, this nation will either keep the fugitive within its borders or force the district attorney from where the fugitive will be tried to take the death penalty off the table, thus ensuring that there will be no further loss of life in the affair.
This creates a dangerous precedent as it is essentially allowing a foreign nation to make judicial decisions for us, a clear infringement of our sovereignty. Americans have never reacted well to the concept of norming, or following international norms. Gun control is a clear example of this, as the U.N. has pressured the U.S. to follow international gun norms, which essentially amount to a wholesale ban on firearm possession, for years to no avail. Therefore, we are engaged in another norming battle, this time not with the international community but with nations that seek to fly in the face of American domestic policy.
Mexico, for instance, uses a 1978 treaty with the United States as a method to force what have been termed “death assurances” from U.S. district attorneys. These force the prosecutors to take the death penalty off the table in order to retrieve the fugitive from Mexican hands. Canada and France are also known to seek similar assurances when a fleeing criminal reaches their borders.
Involvements such as these into the domestic affairs of one nation by a different nation create a difficult precedent to face in the coming decades. If the trend continues as it has, nations could withhold criminals to extract different political changes from each other, be it trade policy, immigration policy, or even military policy. The United States is not the only nation that this could happen to; there are numerous geopolitical rivalries in which such a ploy could be enacted. Imagine for a moment that there is a murder of a prominent individual in India and the culprit flees to Pakistan. Pakistan could use the prisoner as leverage to get New Delhi to change its policy towards the Kashmir region. Such an incident between rival nations, especially nuclear powers such as Pakistan and India, or Iran and Israel, threaten to destabilize not only the geographic region the countries reside in, but also the entire international community.
Regardless of one’s political party, there is no denying the damage that capital punishment can do to a nation’s ability to project itself across the world and its ability to maintain ultimate authority within its own borders. While the United States provides itself as an easy example, this problem can affect any of the thirty six nations which still practice capital punishment. Sometimes a nation must sacrifice a practice it finds acceptable for the greater good of its sovereignty and the international community.