Helen Prejean Hails the U.N.'s Anti-Death Penalty Stance

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Sixteenth in a series of articles commemorating Women's History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date.

Helen Prejean’s passionate testimony against the death penalty on March 23, 1998, came soon after one of the highest profile executions in the U.S. Just weeks before, Karla Faye Tucker had been put to death by the state of Texas for hacking two people to death with a pickaxe.

When she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph in Baton Rouge, La., Prejean was seeking a quiet, personal relationship with God. She had no interest in politics. But her pen-pal relationship with a Louisiana death row inmate changed all that. Prejean has made the fight against the death penalty her life’s work. Her 1993 book, “Dead Man Walking,” inspired a Hollywood movie and sparked a national debate. Sister Helen still travels the world speaking against what she calls “the machinery of death.”

“Dismantle the Machinery of Death”

By Helen Prejean

U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland

Mr. Chairman,

The resolution of this Commission in 1997 calling member states to “suspend executions with a view to completely abolishing the death penalty” established the death penalty as an issue within the sphere of human rights, and marked a threshold never before reached politically or legally. How appropriate now in 1998 for this resolution to be strengthened as we celebrate the 50th year anniversary of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And even further, in the preamble to this resolution, this Commission affirmed that the abolition of the death penalty contributes to the "enhancement of human dignity" and to the "progressive development of human rights."

These two crucial affirmations perfectly explain why we oppose the death penalty.

The first affirmation -- the abolition of the death penalty as an enhancement of human dignity -- goes far beyond claiming the “right to life” and says a more significant “no” to a punishment which reduces the offender to a kind of disposable human waste, saying to him or her in effect: You are not human as the rest of us are. “Hands Off Cain” means this: safeguarding the essential dignity even of those who have committed terrible crimes. Also, incompatible with human dignity is the practice of torture, which the death penalty entails, even when so-called humane methods such as lethal injection are used. There is no humane way to kill a person because human beings have consciousness and emotions and when condemned to death imagine and anticipate death and die a thousand times before they die.

All those I have accompanied to execution said to me, “I am so tired.” They had sat in cells preparing to die. In the midst of sleep they had sat bolt upright in a sweat because the nightmare had come: “The execution squad is coming for me, dragging me to the execution chamber…” They said to me, “Pray that God holds up my legs.” They hope their legs will not buckle as they walk to their deaths. They hope they can control urine and bowels. They also suffer knowing the grief their families endure accompanying them down the road to death. I have watched in mute horror as mothers and sons said final farewell to each other, not even allowed a last embrace.

The second affirmation, that the abolition of the death penalty leads to “the progressive development of human rights,” is crucially important because this Commission has recognized that the right not to be tortured and killed is a human right that is non-negotiable -- not to be given by governments to citizens for good behavior nor taken away from citizens for bad behavior. This is a big step toward the universal recognition of a new human right of every individual.

I especially appeal to my own country, the United States of America, to dismantle the machinery of death, which each year executes more and more people, including the mentally retarded and juveniles as young as 16 years of age. This is intolerable in a country which prides itself in being a land of liberty and democracy. I also appeal to those countries belonging to the Security Council, such as China and the United States, who have agreed to abolish the death penalty in the statutes of the international tribunals on the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda for crimes like genocide and ethnic cleansing but who continue to impose it freely for murder or even theft domestically. I ask the U.S. and China to free themselves from this intolerable anachronism.

Safeguarding human rights through the abolition of the death penalty is becoming more universally recognized. The 1997 Hands Off Cain Report shows that, since 1995, abolitionist U.N. member states (82) are in the majority. Just three years ago this was reversed. In 1997 and 1998, 12 countries strengthened abolitionist stances or moved toward abolition.

Following the approval of this important resolution toward abolition of the death penalty in 1997 by a clear majority of this Commission, we now hope to strengthen and consolidate it. We ask those who in 1997 approved it to sponsor it, those who abstained to vote for it, and those who voted against it to a least abstain. We applaud the work of this Commission and commit our whole-hearted support, for we all play a vital role in bringing to birth a death penalty-free world as we enter the 3rd Millennium.

Copyright 2020 by Helen Prejean. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dana Rubin is a speaker and consultant focused on women’s voice and speech. She’s the founder of Speaking While Female, the first-ever online collection of contemporary and historical speeches by women from across time and around the world. Dana recently gave a TEDx Talk on “Unlocking the Secret History of Women’s Speech,” and she’s working on an anthology of women’s speech. For more on how she helps organizations attract, retain and develop their women leaders, visit SpeakingWhileFemale.biz.



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