NO alla Pena di Morte
Campagna Internazionale 

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American Bar Association

Annual Meeting

Chicago, Aug 4

 

THE DEATH PENALTY MORATORIUM: CAUSE AND EFFECT

By Mario Marazziti

 

There was a time, not long ago, when all peoples, all nations, and all human groups held that death penalty was useful, even necessary, for the punishment of serious crime. Today is no longer so.

 

How serious did a crime have to be for the death penalty to be inflicted? It’s not very clear: for the murder of a man, but not for the murder of a woman, for stealing a chicken, for being an unfaithful wife, for picking pockets? This is the history and today’s reality too of death penalty. There are countries, as in China, where you can be executed for tax evasion. Well…in Italy it would be a genocide, then.

 

And here, in the Usa, you can be executed according to the place where you were born or you were taken by the police. I think it is better if human rights, and the respect of life is among these, are not a’ la carte, a’ la carte geographique.

 

 We can be for or against death penalty, but in any case, if people of good will, we should convene at least on these matters of fact:

 

 1.     The death penalty never gives the victims back their life. It only adds a new death to past crimes.

2.     It is not a deterrent. No country that has the death penalty has experienced a diminishment of the worst crimes. Others, like Canada, where it has been abolished, have experienced a 20% reduction. In the American states that maintain it, like Texas, Florida and Louisiana, there is a homicide rate that is twice at least that of other states.

3.     The death penalty never pays back the victim’s families, but it freezes them for years in hatred and expectation of revenge exercised by the state in the name of individuals. It’s quite significant at the show of the death of Timothy Mc Veigh only 232 relatives, fewer than 12% of those eligible, took up the government’s invitation. What does it say about capital punishment that even among those most directly damaged by a dastardly deed, more than 88% didn’t care to witness the execution, carried out this way mainly to satisfy them?

4.     Even the person who believes that this payback is necessary to lift the suffering should know that the system is dramatically unequal. If this were the only possible “healing” from the suffering it would mean that 99 families out of 100 are systematically deprived of it, as even in the US, fortunately in my point of view, only 1 murderer out of 1000 is actually executed.

5.     In democratic countries the death penalty hits from 5 to 8 times out of 10, social or racial minorities. In other countries, which do not apply democracy and do not believe in it, it often hits members of the political opposition, religious minorities and it is a means to get rid of democracy. The President of South Corea, a Nobel Peace Prize,  risked not to be alive because of that.

6.     As you well know, in the US since 1973 about 96 people detained for years on death row were released because innocent, and most of them only in then last two years thanks to DNA tests: and you did a lot to make it happen. In a population of some 3500 people it is an immense rate of judicial error: one should never take away what cannot give back, which is life.

7.     The death penalty makes neither state nor civil society any better, simply by keeping out, as untouchables, the “worst” . On the contrary the state and civil society are dragged down to the level of the murderers.

It is very interesting, however, that on the forms certifying that execution has occurred in the American death chambers the bureaucratic terminology of the medical doctors operating under the law has no alternative: there is only one choice for cause of death, when life is taken by the hand of another human being: “murdered”.

 

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and the whole world will become blind”, used to say Mahatma Gandhi, who knew how to make empires fall down. Nothing could have been less true. Every execution legitimates a culture of death in the most solemn way instead of eradicating it. Every execution, as a matter of fact, is not a simple death. “It is as different from the deprivation of life as a concentration camp is different from a prison” wrote Albert Camus, a French born in Algeria, Nobel Prize for Literature. Because it adds a horrible premeditation.

 

I come from Europe, and I think you can be interested in having some news from there. Some 50 years ago a movement started in Europe to abolish the death penalty. Since then, all of the EU Member States have abandoned this punishment. In 1981, France, which invented the guillotine, abolished it.

The member states insist on the inhumane, unnecessary and irreversible character of capital punishment, no matter how cruel the crime committed by the offender.

The EU has decided, as an integral part of its human rights policy, to strengthen

Its international activities, in opposition to death penalty. That stance is rooted in the belief in the inherent dignity of all human beings and the inviolability of human person.

 

This rationale now seems to be shared, in certain circumstances, by the international community as a whole, at its best, insofar as both the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the United Nations  Security Council Resolutions establishing the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda do not provide for the death penalty among the range of sanctions, even when the most serious crimes. Including genocide. Crimes against humanity and war crimes are tried.

 

At the end of the day, whatever has happened, the society as a whole, the state, must remain better than the offender.

 

There was a time when slavery and torture were considered normal. And great Americans, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, had households full of slaves. Even if they were the fathers of democracy in America and we all are in debt with them. Now torture and slavery have become over the last two centuries an official shame of humanity.  The same is happening about death penalty. There is an evolution of conscience. Also in the Bible. “The eye for an eye” law was in its time a victory, to put a limit to disproportionate revenge, that of the “seventy times”. And the thing went on. Since the founder was absolutely a man condemned to death. The Gospels and the first centuries of Christianity show a total refusal of any violation of the integrity of human life.

There’s an evolution in conscience and common awareness, as we leave the childhood of humanity and we enter a more adult era.

Europe in not any better than America, but would like to see America in a less embarrassing position which sees it now always at the side of countries as Irak, Iran, China, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, executing juveniles, mentally retarded, and leading the toll of state deaths.

Just 25 years ago 50 more countries used in the world death penalty. Now some 110 countries have abolished capital punishment or suspended it “de facto”.

 

On last  December 18th I was in New York City, at UN, in Kofi Annan’s Office, representing my organization, the Community of Sant’Egidio, a christian, ecumenical international movement, based in Rome, and now spread in 60 countries of the world.

I was there, accompanied by sister Helen Prejean and by Mr. Hoffman, Amnesty International, to handle in Kofi Annan’s hands the petition the Community of Sant’Egidio launched two years ago calling for a Moratorium on executions worldwide.

The Moratorium campaign is an opportunity. It is an offer to governments to take a step forward for life and for a higher conception of human rights.

The Community of Sant’Egidio has an unpronounceable name, but has goals and a commitment that can be shared with many. It has been since 1968 of the free choice of lay believers, Christians, ecumenically minded, working for dialogue between the secular and religious cultures of our planet and for interfaith dialogue. Men and women, first in Rome, in Italy, then in Europe, and today in 60 countries, half of which in the southern hemisphere – seek a way of friendship with the poor to build a world of less war, less exploitation, where there will  no longer be whole continents like Africa left to die because of war, corruption, underdevelopment, drought, or AIDS. The Community of Sant’Egidio feels that war is the mother of all poverty and that is why it has spent, with more or less success, a part of its energies to end decade-long conflicts, as in Mozambique and Guatemala, and to assist in ending  ethnic conflicts and beginning the stage of reconciliation, from Burundi to the Balkans. I could personally participate, as a spokesperson at the peace negotiation that ended the 16 years long civil war in Mozambique, which was brokered by a mediation of the Community of Sant’Egidio in our headquarter in Rome, Italy.

 

When we began the issue of a Moratorium had no great appeal. Today the situation has changed. Now in 145 countries, already 3.5 million people have signed our appeal, which gathers together for the first time – according to an approach that characterizes our work – men and women from all cultural and religious areas of the planet.

The presence among the signatories of figures such as Elie Wiesel, Umberto Eco, Abdurrahman Wahid, the anglican primate George Carey, the Dalai Lama, whole Lutheran Churches, and many Catholic cardinals and bishops, but also the confluence of the association that has contributed the most against capital punishment, Amnesty international, shows that we are on the verge of something new, now. For the first time an international moral front has been created, a front interfaith and secular at the same time, towards stopping the killings.

 

Last year we obtained by the City Council of Rome that Rome itself as a city could become a testimonial for life and for justice without revenge. The Colosseum in Rome has become this living testimonial. It lights up with a special golden light any time death penalty makes a serious step back in the world.

Over the year 2000 it was lit up 16 times, and six of these were to highlight that a country had abolished death penalty in the world: among these, Ucraine, Albania, Bulgaria, Turkmenistan. Last June, a solemn celebration in front of the Colosseum remembred the world that Chile had abolished death penalty in the Consitution.

 

I was asked once: what do you need to gather 3,5 million signatures and dramatically contributing to such a change in public opinion?

I thought for a while and then answered: “a pen” . You just need a pen.

And determination. And people who love to work for a less barbarian world. Who believe in justice and compassion.

People like you.

 

Thank you for your patience