The U.S. and Human Rights

Exemplar or Bad Example?

This week Glenn Ford, the 144th person on death row to be exonerated, was released from Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison after spending almost 30 years in the shadow of death — staggering numbers in both the number of innocents released from death row and in the years spent in jail for a crime a man did not commit. Yes, a justice system can fail and it failed Mr. Ford; yet in his case it self-corrected. The real worry is: in how many instances was it unable to correct itself? To put it more bluntly: how many innocents have been executed?

The death penalty in the U.S. is an exception among developed nations, and is just one of the reasons why the UN Human Rights Committee sharply criticized the U.S. this week. It has a right to do so as it is charged with ensuring signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, a UN treaty the U.S. ratified in 1992) uphold their treaty commitments, and it exercises this right every five years.

Other actions not consistent with the spirit of the ICCPR specified are …

  • A failure to hold to account officials responsible for allowing water-boarding — a long established torture dating back to the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Detention without charge at Guantanamo irrespective of the U.S. claim that ICCPR is inapplicable outside its borders.
  • Drone strikes and the death penalty.
  • NSA surveillance
  • Endemic racial inequality including de facto school segregation.
  • Rampant gun violence leading to over 30,000 deaths (10,000 homicides) annually.
  • High levels of homelessness and criminalization of homeless people.
  • Racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
  • Racial profiling by police

Glenn Ford’s case highlights the latter. His court appointed defense team at his trial consisted of a lead attorney who was a specialist in oil and gas exploration law. He had never tried a jury case. Junior Counsel was two years out of law school and worked on small auto accident insurance cases — surely not the ideal defense team for a capital punishment case. Add withholding of exculpatory evidence by prosecutors and incompetent (and wrong) forensics experts, and we have a tragedy with no consequences for the original prosecutor or ‘experts’.

Any self-respecting criminal lawyer ought to be ashamed of what passes for justice. Yet part of the problem lies in the overburdened system caused by a flood of victimless crimes relating mostly to drug laws — in the case of cocaine biased against African-Americans because crack is punished far more severely than the powder used predominantly by whites.

To put gun homicides in perspective, our northern neighbor, Canada, suffers around 200 gun homicides annually, a number 50 times less; in Japan the figure is about 50, or a little less than what the U.S. tots up every two days.

Not only is the record of the current administration abysmal on the counts enumerated by the UN committee, it has added to the list, specifically with regard to increased drone strikes, drone executions (including American citizens without any attempt at due process) and NSA surveillance. How can any country claim moral standing in this world if it is called on the carpet by the UN Human Rights Committee again and again?

Arshad M. Khan is a retired professor. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Arshad M..