30 June 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



There was a need for greater transparency and accountability in the United States in the criminal justice processes that led to the death penalty, Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference today.

“Generally, it’s not laws and procedures that are lacking, but it is an openness and a preparedness to provide access to key information that is missing,” Mr. Alston said, introducing the preliminary findings of his country visit to the United States, from 16 to 30 June.  As an independent observer for the Human Rights Council in his individual capacity, he explained that his mandate was to ensure that due process guarantees were protected in the application of the death penalty.

During his United States visit, he said, most of his interviews with national officials in Washington, D.C., and state officials in Texas and Alabama, had been constructive.  However, instead of obtaining access to the information he needed, he had often been assured that there was accountability.  Whether or not it existed, private or internal accountability could not take the place of genuine public accountability.  “A Government open and accountable to its people is the foundational premise of a democratic State, and one certainly expects no less in the United States,” he said.

Unease over the death penalty in the United States had been sparked by, among other factors, the exoneration of 129 individuals waiting on death row since 1973, he said.  He had visited Alabama because it had the highest per capita rate of executions in the country, and Texas because it had the largest number of executions and prisoners on death row.  He had found limited openness in Texas and little openness in Alabama on the issue.

Clearly, there was something wrong with the way the death penalty was being administered in both states, he maintained.  Among other problems he had found were the political pressure felt by judges to apply the death penalty, the uneven quality of the indigent defence system, an impression of bias in applying the penalty as regarded the race of both the victim and the defendant, and the breach of international legal obligations regarding defendants from other countries.

At the national level, he said, there was no way that fair trials could be conducted for the six “alien enemy combatants” detained at Guantanamo Bay and charged with capital offences under the Military Commissions Act.  By all indications, they would not meet the due process standards required for a fair trial under international humanitarian and human rights law, with the defence highly constricted in regard to access to counsel and evidence.  In addition, evidence not normally admissible, such as coerced statements, could be used in the trials.

He also called on the Government to publish information on civilian casualties in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to make the workings of the military justice system transparent, saying that was crucial for the “hearts and minds” of the people in those countries.  Concerning prosecutions of private military contractors, he said that the Department of Justice had been “AWOL” (absent without leave), with only one case pursued, and that legislation proposed on the issue had serious gaps.  He called for a special unit to ensure that laws already on the books were applied.

Among other problems requiring improved transparency and accountability, he cited the deaths of people in detention in both military and immigration facilities.  Areas where much progress had been made had included compensation for civilian victims of United States military operations, which, he suggested, provided a model to be emulated.

Asked by a correspondent for the kind of changes that were needed in the Military Commissions Act to make it just by international standards, Mr. Alston said that the Act was so deeply flawed that it was better to start over.  The United States was setting itself up for a legal disaster because of the likelihood that the courts would overturn convictions reached under the current process.

Asked to give a grade to the United States, or to compare its performance in criminal justice issues to that of other countries, he said that was meaningless.  He added that the United States was a model for justice around the world and had the obligation to do everything it could to comply with the highest standards.

In many areas, he said, the United States’ record was good.  He hoped his criticisms would not be met with a defensive reaction, but instead bring about renewed consideration of improvement.  Many of his concerns had already been addressed in draft legislation, so it was not as if he was bringing problems to light for the first time.

The receptiveness of the officials he had met to his proposals had varied considerably, he said, noting that officials at the Department of Homeland Security seemed very willing to speak about the problem of deaths in detention, while officials at the Department of Defence “listened to my suggestions, and that’s all”.

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For information media • not an official record