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Denouncing United States vote against death penalty ban at the United Nations
Denouncing United States Vote Against Death Penalty Ban at the United Nations

On Friday, September 29, the Human Rights Council voted in favor of a resolution which condemned the “imposition of the death penalty as a sanction for specific forms of conduct, such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations.” 

The Independent reported that the resolution, proposed by Belgium, Benin, Costa Rica, France, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia and Switzerland, denounced the use of the death penalty against persons with “mental or intellectual disabilities, persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the crime, and pregnant women,” expressing “serious concern that the application of the death penalty for adultery is disproportionately imposed on women.” 

The United States cast its support behind two amendments proposed by Russia which both ultimately failed, but claimed that the death penalty was “not necessarily ‘a human rights violation’ and that it is not a form of torture, but can lead to it ‘in some cases.’”

Despite this opposition from the United States, 27 members of the 47 in the Human Rights Council voted in favor of the resolution, and it passed. 

A spokesperson for the State Department, Heather Nauert, told The Independent: “The headlines, reporting and press releases on this issue are misleading. As our representative to the Human Rights Council in Geneva said on Friday, the United States is disappointed to have to vote against this resolution. We had hoped for a balanced and inclusive resolution that would better reflect the positions of states that continue to apply the death penalty lawfully, as the United States does. The United States voted against this resolution because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach in condemning the death penalty in all circumstances and calling for its abolition. The United States unequivocally condemns the application of the death penalty for conduct such as homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery and apostasy. We do not consider such conduct appropriate for criminalisation and certainly not crimes for which the death penalty would be lawfully available as a matter of international law.”

The 13 states to oppose the resolution were Botswana, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China, India, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the US, and the United Arab Emirates.

The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office’s analysis of this vote is that it is deplorable that the United States again voted against friends and allies who favor the strengthening of global human rights laws, and with some of the world’s worst human rights violators.  US actions in supporting Russian failed amendments to state that the death penalty is not necessarily a human rights violation or a form of torture, again, puts the United States on the wrong side of the divide which separates those nations working for human rights and those working against them. 

The ban clearly protects “specific forms of conduct, such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations.”  Even the State Department's statement that it is “disappointed to have to vote against this resolution,” does not absolve the US for not working to protect these “specific forms of conduct.”  It is true that the U.S. vote in Geneva is consistent with past U.S. votes on the issue of abolishing the death penalty.  Prior administrations have voted in similar ways against the growing United Nations consensus that the death penalty should be abolished.  Despite U.S. Government views to the contrary, the UU-UNO feels that the September 29 resolution was not a global condemnation of the death penalty, but restricted to “imposition of the death penalty as a sanction for specific forms of conduct, such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations.” 

As the United States does not impose the death penalty for such forms of conduct as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery, consensual same-sex relations, it should have been able to vote in favor of the resolution.  The fact that the United States joined human rights violators to vote against this important resolution is, in our view, deplorable. 

About the Author

  • Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...

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