UN Experts Urge Biden to Abolish 'Inherently Flawed' Death Penalty

Calling capital punishment “an abhorrent practice” that “serves no deterrent value and cannot be reconciled with the right to life,” a group of United Nations human rights experts on Thursday urged U.S. President Joe Biden to do everything he can to end executions at both the federal and state level. 

“We call on President Biden to urgently grant clemency to the 48 individuals currently on death row for federal crimes.”
—U.N. experts

The experts—who include Nils Melzer, the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment—took exception with U.S. officials’ claims “that capital punishment can be implemented in a ‘humane’ fashion.”

“Executions have repeatedly resulted in degrading spectacles,” they said. “The death penalty is an inherently flawed form of punishment which disproportionately impacts African Americans and people living in poverty.” 

The U.N. officials noted the case of Lisa Montgomery—a mentally ill victim of a lifetime of extreme physical and sexual abuse who was one of 13 people executed during the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency—in imploring Biden to spare other federal death row inmates.

“We call on President Biden to urgently grant clemency to the 48 individuals currently on death row for federal crimes, most of whom have been on death row for a decade or more,” they said. “This should be only a first step. We further urge the president, as well as members of Congress, to strongly support legislative efforts to formally abolish the death penalty at federal level.”

“In the meantime,” they added, “President Biden should consider all other possible federal-level actions including directing the Department of Justice to stop seeking the death penalty and withdrawing notices of intent to seek the death penalty in ongoing cases. Action must also be taken to address death penalties handed down at the state level.”

Noting that more than 160 people sentenced to death in the United States have been exonerated since 1973, Biden pledged during the 2020 presidential campaign to “work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.” 

Additionally, the U.N. experts asked Biden to explore “the possibility of linking some forms of federal funding to alternative sentencing and a ban on the sale and transport of chemicals used in lethal injections.”

“There is no time to lose with thousands of individuals on state death rows across the country and several executions scheduled at state level in 2021,” they stressed. 

According to U.N. News, 108 nations have abolished capital punishment, while 60% of the world’s population lives in the 48 countries that still execute people. 

The latest available figures from Amnesty International show that China killed the most people by far in 2019—the rights group claims more than 1,000 executions, many of which are secret, were carried out by its government—followed by Iran with at least 250 executions, Saudi Arabia with 184, Iraq with more than 100, Egypt with at least 32, and the United States with 22. Figures for North Korea and Vietnam could not be determined. 

All of the world’s leading executioners are authoritarian regimes except the United States. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 25 of the 50 U.S. states retain capital punishment, while 22 have abolished the practice, and three—most recently, California—have governor-imposed moratoriums on executions.

Last December, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine declared an unofficial moratorium, citing a federal judge’s opinion that lethal injection causes “severe pain and needless suffering.” DeWine, a Republican, also voiced skepticism about whether capital punishment deters murde—studies show it doesn’t

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