Young Enough to Die? Executing Juvenile Offenders in Violation of International Law

By Carlsten, Annika K. | Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Summer-Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Young Enough to Die? Executing Juvenile Offenders in Violation of International Law


Carlsten, Annika K., Denver Journal of International Law and Policy


There is now an almost global consensus that people who commit crimes when under 18 should not be subjected to the death penalty. This is not an attempt to excuse violent juvenile crime, or belittle the suffering of its victims and their families, but a recognition that children are not yet fully mature--hence not fully responsible for their actions--and that the possibilities for rehabilitation of a child or adolescent are greater than for adults. Indeed, international standards see the ban on the death penalty against people who were under 18 at the time of the offense to be such a fundamental safeguard that it may never be suspended, even in times of war or internal conflict. However, the US authorities seem to believe that juveniles in the USA are different from their counterparts in the rest of the world and should be denied this human right. (1)

INTRODUCTION

In the first year of the `new millennium', in the midst of an atmosphere of progress and new beginnings, the United States instead continued a tradition it has practiced virtually nonstop for over 350 years. At a steady pace, the United States executed eighty-five individuals: eighty-three men and two women. (2) This brisk rate of executions averages one person killed every four days. `Execution friendly' Texas reached a record high- forty individuals, including a `rare' double execution when Texas killed two men by lethal injection just one hour apart. (3) To a growing number of Americans, these executions are, in and of themselves, a violation of the basic human right to life. Four of these eighty-five executions, however, not only offend people's sense of morality and compassion; they are also a violation of international law. In direct violation of the spirit and language of numerous international treaties and conventions, these individuals were executed for crimes they committed as children.

This article will examine the United States' continued practice of executing juvenile offenders in spite of numerous international treaties that forbid the practice, and growing international condemnation of the United States for doing so. Section I begins with an overview of the history of juvenile executions in the United States, and relevant U.S. case law governing the practice. Section II details the international perspective, with an emphasis on the various treaties that forbid the execution of juvenile offenders. Section III examines current international objections, recent executions of juvenile offenders, and contemporary legal challenges based upon relevant principles of international law. The article concludes with observations on the current status of the death penalty in the United States, and a discussion of various strategies which could lead to recognition of the death penalty as a crucial human rights concern, and in turn, to absolute and universal abolition.

JUVENILE EXECUTIONS IN THE UNITED STATES

At this time of unprecedented growth and prosperity, the U.S. finds itself in an uncomfortable position in the global human rights debate. While aggressively criticizing the human rights records of countries such as China, Cuba, and Afghanistan, the U.S. also must defend its continued and expanding use of the death penalty. In direct opposition to the universal status quo, the United States remains one of only five countries still known to execute people for crimes they committed while under the age of eighteen. (4) As the saying goes, `politics makes strange bedfellows'. The, other four countries are hardly ones that the U.S. traditionally aligns itself with in any other policy area. These countries (Iran; Iraq; Saudi Arabia; and Nigeria) are the very countries the United States often tries to portray as uncivilized, barbaric, and lacking in the trappings of a functioning democracy. (5) Moreover, the number of nations willing to engage in the practice is steadily shrinking. Yemen, which previously allowed the execution of juvenile offenders, abandoned the practice in 1998. …

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