International Context

With increasing globalization and a developing world economy, it is difficult not to look beyond the borders of the United States to the practices of other nations. In deciding Stanford, for example, the Supreme Court considered the international context in determining evolving standards of decency.

International law has expressly determined that the death penalty, specifically, the death penalty and life imprisonment without possibility of release for crimes committed while a juvenile, is a human rights issue (see Life in Prison Without Possibility of Release for a discussion of life imprisonment without possibility of release (parole)). According to Amnesty International, since the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights 50 years ago, more than half of the world's countries have abolished the use of the death penalty (Amnesty International, 1998). Table 5 lists the documented executions of offenders in other countries who were under age 18 at the time of execution for the period 1985-95. However, the extent of the international use of the death penalty for juveniles is largely unknown. If age at the time of crime had been used, rather than age at execution, the numbers would be greater. Undocumented cases would also increase the global number.

Table 5

The United States has not adopted several international bans on the juvenile death penalty. Introduced on March 23, 1976, the United Nations' (U.N.'s) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that the "sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age" (article 6(5)). The United States signed the ICCPR in October 1977, although the Supreme Court had recently, in Gregg v. Georgia, permitted States to resume use of the death penalty. At the time of signing, the Federal Government expressly reserved the right to impose the death penalty for crimes committed while under age 18. Eleven countries objected to the United States' reservation and, in 1995, the U.N.'s Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the ICCPR, asked the United States to withdraw the reservation (Amnesty International, 1998). In 1998, the United States was again asked to withdraw its reservation, this time by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, but the United States declined to do so.

Article 37(a) of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that "neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age."22 China, which has long upheld the death penalty and historically executed more people annually than any country in the world, changed its laws in 1997 to conform to article 37(a) of the CRC. President Clinton signed the CRC in 1995 with a reservation to article 37(a). The Senate has not yet ratified the CRC. Of 154 U.N. members, the United States and Somalia are the only 2 countries that have not yet ratified the CRC.


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Juveniles and the Death PenaltyCoordinating Council on Juvenile Justice
and Delinquency Prevention
November 2000