Today, International Human Rights Day, is the 61st anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UNDR). I always like to quote Sister Helen Prejean's observation, in her book Death of Innocents, that initially there was some debate about whether abolition of the death penalty fell within the scope of the ideal that the Universal Declaration represented. Helen writes:
It was to be expected when Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was debated back in the 1940s that such a declaration, which granted everyone the right to life without qualification, would provoke debate, and one of the first proposed amendments was that an exception ought to be made in the case of criminals lawfully sentenced to death. Eleanor Roosevelt urged the committee to resist this amendment, arguing that their task was to draw up a truly universal charter of human rights toward which societies could strive. She foresaw a day when no government could kill its citizens for any reason.
We are, of course, still working toward that day, and although there is a great deal left to do, we can also appreciate that 61 years after Eleanor Roosevelt made her argument, the majority of the world's countries have abolished the death penalty.
Today is also the 5th anniversary of the founding of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. Five years ago, the founding group gathered at the UN Church Plaza in New York City, offered public testimony, and signed a document stating, "In the name of victims, we pledge to end the death penalty around the world."
In MVFHR's first public statement shortly thereafter, we said:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that sets forth the most basic principles regarding the value of human life and the way human beings ought to treat one another, was inspired by victims, demanded by victims. It grew out of the suffering of millions of civilians murdered under the brutal regimes of the Second World War, and its adoption on December 10, 1948 was a way to honor the loss of these lives, and an attempt to give meaning to the loss, by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.
Now is the time to raise our voices again and insist that violations of human life in the form of the death penalty or other state killings are not permissible under any nation or regime. It is time to call for the abolition of the death penalty because the only way to uphold human rights is to uphold them in all cases, universally.
We believe that survivors of homicide victims have a recognized stake in the debate over how societies respond to murder and have the moral authority to call for a consistent human rights ethic as part of that response. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is the answer to that call.
Our deepest thanks today to all MVFHR's members and supporters who have helped answer that call and who have accomplished so much in five years.