Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Murder is a human rights violation

Several MVFHR members and friends are speaking this week at the 3rd National Conference on Restorative Justice in Raleigh, North Carolina this week. For example, Bill Pelke and Bess Klassen-Landis will join other victims' family members in a round table discussion, "Listening to Crime Victims: Their Journeys Toward Healing." And our colleague at the Texas After Violence Project, Walter Long, sent us a copy of the talk he is giving at the conference, which includes a passage that is extremely relevant to MVFHR's concerns:

Murder – intentional homicide – is a human rights violation. ... It is one of the worst human rights violations, and a component of or companion to all the worst violations (genocide, apartheid, torture). Okay, I’ve made that assertion. After this talk, go out and google “murder — human — rights — violation.” You’ll find a bunch of entries about execution and the death penalty. You’ll find a good many articles on murder by government agents, or “sanctioned murder.” You’ll find very little about murder committed by non-state actors. You’ll even find an odd “” entry that asks “Is murder a human rights violation?”

What? Why did someone feel the need to ask that? After all, Article 3 of the foundational document of modern human rights, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, says “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights requires, in Article 6, “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law.” The United States has ratified the Covenant and is bound by it. How absolutely insulting it must feel to survivors of murder victims and to prosecutors to be bombarded by anti-death penalty human rights rhetoric, while nothing is said about the human rights violation that set them on the course of being victims or the advocate for victims in the first place. Why isn’t that acknowledged?

This passage from Walter's talk brings to mind a piece that Renny Cushing and I (Susannah Sheffer) wrote for Peacework magazine a few years ago, titled "Human Rights and Victim Justice." Here's an excerpt:

It's interesting to remember that 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 by asserting that such violations are neither moral nor permissible under any nation or regime.

In more recent times, however, it has sometimes seemed as though the victims' rights movement and the human rights -- or death penalty abolition -- movements are speaking different languages. Historically, the victims' movement has asserted that every human life has value and that the taking of any one life by murder represents a theft whose impact will be felt forever. Victims' rights are, therefore, a way of trying to counterbalance that original violation with a reassertion of human dignity. Historically, the death penalty abolition movement has recognized that every human life has value and that the taking of any one life by the state replicates the very violation it is supposedly designed to redress. These are in fact both human rights claims, yet abolitionists and victims' rights advocates often fail to recognize these commonalities or to internalize each other's perspectives.

For MVFHR, both the death penalty and individual murder are violations of fundamental human rights. We believe that those who are outraged when the state kills should be equally outraged when an individual kills, and should therefore make a real effort to understand the effects of murder and to consider and incorporate the victim's perspective into their work. We believe that those who are outraged by an individual murder should likewise be outraged when the state takes another human life, and should therefore make a real effort to understand and consider the effects of a state system of execution.

Justice for victims -- whose human rights have been so completely violated -- does not come from violating the human rights of others. Justice, instead, must come in another way, and that way must include a recognition of the worth and dignity of all and a willingness to work toward a world that upholds, rather than denies, the value of human life.

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