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Kokeb Zeleke: The Death Row Phenomenon: The Need to Call for Moratoriums on Sentencing

As a Frank C. Newman intern, I had the opportunity to dedicate my project on the death row phenomenon, and consequently participate at the 22nd session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. So, to clarify, the death row phenomenon occurs when people are sentenced to death, and spend extremely long periods of time on death row. As a result, the permanent stress, the constant fear, and the usually inhumane conditions inmates are subjected to lead to extreme physical, psychological, and emotional harm, amounting to cruel and inhuman treatment or punishment. On behalf of Human Rights Advocates, I submitted a written statement to the UN Human Rights Council, titled “The death row phenomena as torture: The need for moratoriums on death penalty sentences.” (See document: A/HRC/22/NGO/52).

Part of my argument was to also address the lack of current methods of executions used today that are considered humane, as beheading, hanging, stoning, bludgeoning, firing squads, and lethal injection have all been proven to be inhumane. Previously the General Assembly had called for moratoriums on executions, but the solution that we were proposing was to have moratoriums both on sentencing and executions, otherwise, inmates would continue to be subjected to the death row phenomenon.

Fortunately, when I attended the 22nd session of the UN Human Right Council, the death penalty was a very hot topic, and in collaboration with my colleague Esther Wilch, I also had an opportunity to present a combined statement on extreme sentencing practices around the world and on the death row phenomenon under agenda item 3’s General Debate session.

I focused my attention on two specific draft resolutions. First, the “Panel on the human rights of children of parents sentenced to the death penalty or executed,” which was organized by the Permanent Mission of Belgium, Norway, and Montenegro. On this session, we tried to introduce the specific language “within a reasonable period of time” in regards to information about an inmate being provided for the family members. After significant changes to the initial draft, this resolution passed by consensus. (See, Panel on the human rights of children of parents sentenced to the death penalty or executed, A/HRC/RES/22/11).

The second drafting session was on a “High-level panel discussion on the question of the death penalty,” organized by Costa Rica, France, and other countries. Unfortunately, NGO’s were not allowed to participate here, but it provided me with a platform to seek out and contact delegates that seemed not informed enough about the issue, or those who were positively interested in our solution. This resolution also went through significant changes, before being adopted by a vote. (See, High Level panel discussion on the question of the death penalty: A/HRC/DEC/22/117).

Another learning opportunity was presented to me when I had the chance to accompany Professor de la Vega to Baden, Switzerland. There we had a meeting with various people, lawyers, and NGOs included, about a death row inmate in San Quentin. I was able to talk about the death row phenomenon, the current legal obstacles we were facing, the solutions we were proposing, as well as in what aspects we were involved at the human rights council.

So, what did I gain from this experience? Going into this clinic, I had many questions about International Human Rights. I always questioned the legitimacy of international institutions and their ability to bring about tangible, sustainable, positive change. Acknowledging the realities of politics, and how in many instances, it might directly collide with the interests of human rights, I was a little skeptical, perhaps jaded, entering this internship. And perhaps I did not resolve the internal dilemma I had, and not all of my questions were answered.

But I learned this. We were part of the discourse. We contributed to a dialogue and we spoke for the people (for some of them at least). We may not know much in the context of everything that is going on in the world, but when it came to our topics, we were the experts. We were there to educate delegates about the violations occurring in their own countries. We engaged in conversations in order to genuinely come up with better solutions. We were developing a legal framework that could be used here in the US, as well as anywhere else in the world.

So, I as a second year law student can confidently say that being part of the International Human Rights Clinic was one of the most valuable educational experiences I’ve gotten so far. I would like to sincerely thank Professor de la Vega, Human Rights Advocates, Frank C. Newman and his legacy, as well as University of San Francisco School of Law for presenting me with such an opportunity.

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