International Perspectives on the Death Penalty

Feb 27, 2001

Staff from Together Against the Death Penalty discuss the organization's mission, why their main focus is the United States, and the differing attitudes to the death penalty around the world.

JOE SAUNDERS: I want to get started with some very basic questions about Together Against the Death Penalty. What is the mission of the organization? When were you founded and how many staff do you have?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: The organization was founded in 2000 on the initiative of Michel Taube and Benjamin Menasce when they wrote a book called Open Letter to the American People on the Abolition of the Death Penalty that was published in French. It was quite a big success. As a result, a petition to end the death penalty was launched on the Web that collected half a million signatures. We now have four full-time staff, plus interns.

JOE SAUNDERS: When was the book published?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: March 2000, and the reaction was what led to the creation of the organization. Following the book, a small congress was organized in Paris, which was called the European Forum Against the Death Penalty. It was attended by members of parliament and lawyers from both sides of the Atlantic. That was in October 2000, three weeks before the U.S. presidential election. Then the first World Congress against the Death Penalty was held in Strasbourg in June 2001. We organized the event in partnership with Amnesty International, The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, Penal Reform International, The European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Presidency of the French National Assembly, and others. The idea was mainly to promote the issue and raise awareness in France and Europe about the death penalty in the rest of the world.

JOE SAUNDERS: You said the organization started with a book that Michel co-authored that focused on the United States. When did you expand the mission to the whole world?

MICHEL TAUBE: We did that in the very beginning, in fact. While holding the European Forum, we realized that the death penalty was a world problem. Even if it is very different in China, the U.S., Africa, etc., in fact, there are the same issues, and we decided in November 2000 to change our title from Together Against the Death Penalty in the USA to Together Against the Death Penalty.

JOE SAUNDERS: Is it a membership organization?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: In the beginning, it was not a membership organization but we had so many requests, especially after the World Congress, we made it one. Now we have over 200 members, mainly in France, and we have an e-mail list of 64,000 people, including many Americans, and they get regular e-mails from us on the death penalty and news about it.

JOE SAUNDERS: How much of a priority is the United States for your organization, and why?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: It is crucial for two reasons. First, the United States and Japan are the only democracies that still execute people. The justice system in the United States is biased and that needs to be addressed quickly in order to save the lives of many people.

Secondly, when you speak to government officials from other countries that still execute people, what they always answer is, "Well, the U.S. leads the world, it is the truest democracy and they still have the death penalty, so as long as they do it, we will do it." So if there is some major change in the United States, we can use it as leverage in the rest of the world.

MICHEL TAUBE: Let me add two arguments. As many have said, the United States is the country of freedom, and we believe that strongly. And because it is free, it is easier for us to develop our arguments and activities here. That is why we are naturally pushed to the American part of our work. Also, when I wrote my book, the first thing I wrote was "Dear American people, it is as friends that we are writing to you." The United States has many close friendships with Europeans and Americans can understand us.

JOE SAUNDERS: Personally, how did you get involved with this issue?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: I was working at Amnesty [International] as a campaigner for North Africa, and part of that work was on the death penalty in Egypt. I had to cover all these stories of women sentenced to death because they had killed their husbands. Basically, these women had been abused or they had been forced into marriage and wanted to divorce and couldn't, so it led to these awful crimes. That is how I got interested in that issue because the death penalty was not applied fairly at all.

MICHEL TAUBE: It was while I was working for a French organization called the European League against Racism and Anti-Semitism. One day I was watching television as thousands of French citizens protested the execution of Odelle Barnes, Jr. I felt it was so shocking that in the United States there are so many executions. And when I saw a French woman was defending and supporting him, it was that the best proof to me of the globalization of human rights. The struggle against the death penalty is a good synthesis of philosophy, thought, and human rights activism.

JOE SAUNDERS: Are there other citizens' groups working on the death penalty internationally, or is your group unique?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: There are many organizations out there with a large human rights mandate, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, and the death penalty falls within the scope of their activities. These groups are active mainly in terms of lobbying for legislation that reduces the scope of the death penalty and/or abolishes it. And sometimes, they take up the cases of people who are on death row and facing execution. There are also a number of very small groups with a national or regional base that campaign on behalf of a single death row inmate.

JOE SAUNDERS: Are groups in France or elsewhere in Europe working on cases in places like Saudi Arabia?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: No. Another simple reason so much attention is focused on the United States is because information is available. In Saudi Arabia, for example, you would learn about someone on death row only after they have been executed. So there is not much you can do aside from demand legislation. There is no information available about trials, which are often held in secrecy, and no one knows who is under a sentence of death. All you ever get is a news release by the minister of the interior saying X or Y has been executed today.

JOE SAUNDERS: Could you give us a sense of the prevalence of the death penalty worldwide, and where the United States stands relative to other nations?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: 88% of all recorded executions take place in four countries. They are, in order, China, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran.

JOE SAUNDERS: Empirically, is there a movement away from the death penalty worldwide?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: I am not very good about figures but, twenty years ago, about 36-40 countries had abolished the death penalty. Now there are about 100 who are no longer executing people. So that shows the trend. Before the Second World War, Portugal and Belgium had not been executing since the 1850s. After the war, the trend toward abolition and reducing the scope of the death penalty has become more widespread. Take India, for example. There is a ruling from the Indian Supreme Court that says the death penalty should only be applied to the most serious crimes, which they define as only mass murders and sex offenders.

The only region that goes against this trend is Southeast Asia. At the last meeting of ASEAN, the leaders of Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines said they were in favor of the death penalty and especially for sentencing drug traffickers to death. But that is the only region in the world that goes against this trend

MICHEL TAUBE: There is a very interesting exception in Southeast Asia: Cambodia. Cambodia abolished the death penalty and the president of the parliament of Cambodia was in Strasbourg for the World Congress against the Death Penalty last year. He explained that like Europe, Cambodia had experienced genocide, and this was the main reason the Cambodians had decided to abolish the death penalty.

In fact, in Europe, it was easier to abolish the death penalty because we had two genocides, two world wars on our continent. It was after these debaucheries of violence that Europe abolished it.

JOE SAUNDERS: Your suggestion that countries that have experienced genocide are more likely to abolish the death penalty is interesting. In the United States, many death penalty supporters argue that we particularly need the death penalty for the mass murderers and others who commit crimes that 'shock the conscience.' So there seem to be a contradiction.

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: People who say that haven't experienced mass death taking place in their own country and having to face it on an almost daily basis, the situation where everybody has lost a relative or friend—it is a different experience.

JOE SAUNDERS: How is the death penalty abolition movement affecting how the European Union functions? Is it raising any new tensions?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: There is strong pressure on the EU from various groups and organizations because now all foreign policy for European countries is done at the EU level. So if you want something done about Malaysia or Senegal or wherever, it's really on an EU level where you have to address it. NGOs and churches are putting a lot of pressure on the EU, both on the Commission and the Parliament.

JOE SAUNDERS: So does this affect, for example, how aid packages are put together? Is there a direct connection between the death penalty and foreign policy?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: It can have an effect since there is so much pressure on the EU. One example happened with the Palestinian Authority. In the spring of 2001, the Palestinian Authority was executing people accused of spying on behalf of Israel. The EU was very clear and said if you do not stop, we will stop giving economic aid. The Palestinians stopped immediately. Same thing with the Democratic Republic of Congo last April where the government was about to execute four juveniles. There was a lot of campaigning and pressure on EU officials. They intervened and the kids were not executed.

JOE SAUNDERS: What explains the popularity of the death penalty in the United States, and what strategies have you adopted based on your analysis?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: There has not been enough public debate on the issue. It has changed in the last couple of years, but, in the past, there was almost no debate whatsoever in the press. The press just reported trials, sentences and executions. Now you have more and more feature articles about innocent cases as well as racial discrimination in the justice system, so there are the beginnings of a discussion. Still, it's not enough. In my view, Americans favor the death penalty because they haven't thought about what it means for them as individuals and as citizens. I think people do not adequately appreciate that when a jury passes a death sentence, it is as if they are participating in commission of a homicide. A district attorney from Pennsylvania who I was on a panel with yesterday kept saying that the death penalty makes sense because the United States is the freest country in the world, and in exchange for that freedom, its citizens have to agree not to kill others. But an execution is itself a killing.

In Texas, it used to be that when a prisoner was executed, the attending doctor would list "legal homicide" as the cause of death. So the state acknowledged it had committed a homicide, even if a legal homicide.

Now coming back to your question about why the strong support for the death penalty in the United States .... It is mainly a question of education and getting people to think about the implications: the violence inflicted on the community and what that means in a republic.

JOE SAUNDERS: You seem to be saying, if only Americans thought a little bit more about it, they would understand. But isn't it a question of moral standpoints or of a different moral understanding of the world?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: It is true a lot people base their support for the death penalty on the "eye for an eye" rule, which comes from the Bible. What is surprising is that most of the churches here are against the death penalty, and they don't get the word out to their constituencies. And they are one of the moral authorities.

JOE SAUNDERS: As a foreign activist coming into the United States, where do you see your role? What can you contribute to the different moral understandings that exist?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: I think the public presentation and panel debate we had yesterday at Dickinson College was very useful, and it should happen every day all over the United States. As Michel mentioned, there has been a very close friendship between the United States and Europe, and it's very important that at all levels of society people can exchange their views on the death penalty.

MICHEL TAUBE: That is also why we have decided to organize a second World Congress on the Death Penalty here in the United States, because if there is a country in the world where you can have a world congress or a national congress, it is in the United States. In fact, our strategy is not a moral strategy. I think it is dangerous to emphasize moral aspects of the question, especially in the United States because in considering ethical and moral questions, there is more relativism here than in Europe. For me, it is not a question of morals. It is a question of public debate and awareness, and they are not the same thing as morals. Our strategy is to mobilize debate now so that in two years' time the World Congress can become a focal point. The object of this Congress will be to have international debates, but our goal is to always have American people in the center of these debates, because, in fact, you are at the center of the world.

JOE SAUNDERS: What strategies are you considering as your work progresses?

ANNE-CHARLOTTE DOMMARTIN: People often say that Americans don't buy the moral or rhetorical arguments in favor of abolishing capital punishment. But if they begin interrogating themselves about what the death penalty means for the values that made America and all those who came afterward, it could have an effect. Everybody talks about deterrence and the costs, but it does not seem to be working very well. So maybe it would be worth shifting the debate to the values that made America.

MICHEL TAUBE: A sense of true justice is also related to history. These things take time. Our experience, though, has been that wherever the public begins actively debating the death penalty, it eventually is abolished.

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