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U.S. use of death penalty complicates UN vote

Credit: Anna Li/ Credit: Anna Li/

A week ago, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN), cast a rather shocking vote. She voted against a resolution condemning the death penalty for gay people in many countries, as well as cases involving apostasy, blasphemy, and adultery. 12 other UN members, including Iraq and Egypt, voted in the same manner. Haley’s decision shines a telling spotlight on the current administration’s stance on the death penalty, as well as their lack of commitment to supporting the rights of the LGBTQ community worldwide.

The vote received widespread shock from civil right activists and the international community. On Oct. 3, former U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice — whom Haley succeeded — tweeted in response to the vote, “Shame on US! I was proud to lead U.S. efforts at UN to protect LGBTQ people, back in the day when America stood for human rights for all.” Rice’s response, above all, demonstrates how discrepant President Donald Trump’s diplomatic tactics are from former President Barack Obama’s.

The vote seems consistent with the United States’ continued use of the death penalty in some of its states. The United States is the only western country that still practices the death penalty, and one of 57 in the world. 31 U.S. states officially recognize it, whereas 19 do not, and four are currently under governor-imposed moratorium. The death penalty is reserved for murder involving an aggravated factor such as rape or robbery. Almost 3,000 inmates are on death row at the moment.

Many Republicans show overwhelming support for the death penalty. Haley is a Republican, nominated to her ambassadorship by Trump. Her tenure began only seven days after his inauguration. Before then, she was known as the first female — and second Indian-American — governor of South Carolina. She is among the 100 most influential people in the world, according to TIME Magazine. She even delivered the official Republican response to Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address.

Haley is, without a doubt, accomplished and judicious. She has spent the last seven months carefully rebranding the Trump administration in the international community, often pacifying its statements and actions while upholding traditional right-wing values. Yet, it’s hard to imagine any response worded well enough to placate the public in this case.

Nonetheless, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert attempted to justify the shocking vote, serving as the only governmental response thus far. “The United States unequivocally condemns the application of the death penalty for homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery and apostasy,” she said in a statement. She continued, “As in years past, we voted against this resolution because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach to condemning the death penalty in all circumstances.”

In 2014, the Obama administration abstained from a Human Rights Council resolution on the death penalty. The administration also abstained due to the death penalty’s continued use in some states. The Trump administration, however, has taken a grave step beyond the previous administration’s hesitation, jumping straight into an abyss of human rights violation.

In reality, this vote only confirms that the Trump administration is willing to place conservative values over human rights in importance. This should make all U.S. citizens take pause. It should not, however, come as a shock. After all, the Trump administration began its tenure by barring law-abiding green card holders and five year-olds from entry into the country for “national security” reasons.

The death penalty was made the law of the land in the 1976 Supreme Court case Gregg v. Georgia. The case placed statutes on the use of the death penalty to circumvent the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishments in the United States.

There are several arguments from both sides of the aisle for and against the death penalty. On the right, it is seen as a deterrent, stopping people from committing crimes for fear of death and decreasing overall crime rates as a result. Moreover, many feel death is the justice some criminals deserve for their actions, and that by deciding to commit a crime, they are giving up their right to live.

On the left, the death penalty has many opponents. Many view it as an inhumane method of punishment, and an inconvenient, costly option (lethal drugs are expensive and expire relatively quickly). Its inconvenience is evident; since Gregg v. Georgia, 7,800 inmates have been sentenced to death, yet only 1,400 have actually been executed. If this punishment is supposed to cast a preventive net over violent murderous crime, it does so slowly and inefficiently.

It is till unclear what, if any, effect Haley’s controversial vote will have on the world. Unfortunately, it may embolden nefarious governments in the world to continue discriminatory practices that the resolution condemned. It is likely that these governments will continue to persecute their citizens for their sexuality, as was seen recently in Chechnya. It is important for the United States to maintain a position that looks down on such cruel, baseless actions.

There is a silver lining to the UN resolution. 27 nations voted for the resolution — a solid majority. Seven others abstained. The conclusions reached by other countries and the decisions they made leads us to a question: are we entering a time when we can no longer rely on the United States, but must turn to other countries to uphold human rights?
Human rights laws mean nothing in a vacuum. It is the world’s governments that assign meaning to them. In fact, governments are the only way of enforcing them. If the death penalty continues to hold such weight with the conservative leaders in our government, it may be hard for our country to take a stand against inhumane practices happening across the world.

Despite this, views on the death penalty are changing in America. Nebraska, a Republican stronghold, recently outlawed the practice. It is no longer as strong a dividing line between Democrats and Republicans; in the last couple of decades, that line has been shifted to climate change, gun protection laws, and the like. In our lifetimes, we may see all U.S. states abolish the ineffective punishment method, ensuring fair treatment for criminals in America and a policy we can use to lead others with a clear conscience.