Monday, June 25, 2001 Volume 66, Issue 148


Human rights battle reaches U.S. shores

Michael Ahlf

On June 6, the Council of Europe's Human Rights panel sent a recommendation to the main council body that unless the United States and Japan repeal the
death penalty by January 1, 2003, they would lose their "observer" status in the council. Two days earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the death penalty
of a mentally retarded man.

To the Supreme Court, I say, "Thank you." The court found, correctly, that the man wasn't mentally competent and should not be put to death.

To the Council of Europe: "Say again?" It makes me wonder what "observer" status really means, considering the body isn't connected to the European Union
and doesn't currently allow the United States or Japan voting rights. Is it worth threatening a country with its loss? Let's take a step back and look at a few

First, the death penalty in the United States is anything but lawless. The number of appeals granted to those on death row is ridiculous, and the burden of
proof for such a trial goes far beyond even the burden of proof for a normal conviction of first degree murder. Only those who have committed heinous crimes
are even considered for the death penalty.

Second, human rights are a double-edged sword. The United Nations' human rights panel has quickly become a forum for abusers to hide behind. The best
example of this is China, which has successfully hid behind the shield of the U.N. panel for years.

The United States has all sorts of safeguards in place for the protection of those sent to death row, not the least of which is the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Singapore will cane you for using a can of spray paint and tagging a building. China will take U.S. scholars and throw them in jail for years,
charging them with no crimes and allowing them no visitors -- essentially holding them hostage.

Palestinians and Israelis commit horrible acts of atrocity against each other, firing guns and mortars randomly into each others' settlements. Zimbabwe is in
the middle of a racial war, with the head of the government having declared that whites have no rights to their property, even when it's just farmland.

So why then does the United States find itself under such attacks in recent months? Mostly, it's retaliation: After years and years of the United States pushing
for human rights in other countries, the countries we criticized are exercising power to do the same.

This could be a good thing, except that criminals doing jail time in most prisons have access to better law libraries, gymnasium facilities and various
amenities (like cable television) than most people do on the outside. The United States has been a preeminent force for human rights for more than a half
century, and it should continue to be so, instead of backing off when other countries try to attack it for pointing out their own flaws.

The countries we attacked have finally realized one essential thing: If they can make it look like they're fighting for human rights, then they can more easily
hide their own abuses.

The real test is upon the Bush administration. Do we stand proud with our record, doing everything we can to make sure the death penalty is carried out with
honesty and justice, in only the instances for which it was designed? Or do we back off and watch as human rights conditions in the rest of the world get even

Ahlf, a senior electrical engineering 
major, can be reached at

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