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Dead Reckoning | The Nation

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Dead Reckoning

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Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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Bruce Shapiro
Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor to The Nation, is executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma...

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To a young journalist in the early 1980s Doug seemed already to have lived an impossible number of lives.

Sandy Hook opened a rare opportunity to change not just a few laws but the basic terms of debate over public safety and social responsibility.

One of the best vantage points from which to view this revolution in international crime-and-punishment culture is the Irish Center for Human Rights, in Galway. The center's director, William Schabas, is a Toronto-born human rights lawyer and expert on international law who before moving to Europe spent time working in Washington. Schabas drafted Amnesty International's brief in the Canadian extradition case and in any given week is likely to fly between, say, a death penalty conference in Taiwan and a consultation with Mexico's US attorney. Schabas sees a welter of developments--international law like the Vienna Convention and Protocol 6, national precedents like the South African and Canadian Supreme Court decisions, the prosecution of war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic--all creating a culture that will make it much more difficult for the United States to sustain its unilateral commitment to the death penalty. "You can see the fissures in formerly impenetrable legal systems," he says. "It is like the abolition of slavery 150 years ago: on the one hand, slow progress, yet absolutely inevitable conflicts that will have to be addressed sooner or later."

One of the reasons he is convinced the pace of change is accelerating: "For the first time, the death penalty debate is moving bottom-up as well as top-down." Part of the evidence lies outside Schabas's office window in Galway. For years, death-penalty supporters have claimed that Europe's abolitionist laws were elitist reforms that did not reflect popular sentiment. And in fact, capital punishment was never put to a popular vote in any European country. Not, that is, until this June, when a handful of human rights lawyers succeeded in placing a referendum on the Irish ballot permanently excising capital punishment--even in times of war or civil unrest--from the Republic's constitution.

It was, in some ways, a risky strategy. Says Schabas, "There have been public opinion polls in some other European countries suggesting you might win an anti-death-penalty referendum. But until Ireland, no one dared to do it." Ireland's last execution was in 1954, but crime rates and public fear have been rising. Turnout was high, thanks to heated public debate over another referendum, on a proposed treaty governing the federation's expansion. The results were staggering: Death-penalty abolition was approved by more than 60 percent of voters.

The idea of bottom-up opposition to capital punishment--a new strategy for abolitionists who cut their teeth fighting in the courts--is taking hold on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, Bobby Muller of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, who helped initiate the successful worldwide campaign for a landmine treaty, is working with anti-death-penalty victims of violence as well as European groups to establish a new transnational lobby. In Europe, religious and civic groups like Italy's Community of San Egidio, a Catholic social-justice network, have begun adopting US death-row prisoners, making links through sister cities in the United States and taking other steps more sophisticated than simply filing futile last-minute diplomatic protests, as was often the strategy in the past. Indeed, Emma Bonino, president of the abolitionist network Hands Off Cain, sees a new, more democratic approach evolving. "You cannot impose a new human right by decree--a mistake sometimes made in the past," she says. "That's why it is important to push for a moratorium. A moratorium is the common ground between abolitionists and retentionists, which can allow the debate to take place."

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