Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Inter-Press Service interview

This interview with Renny Cushing was published today by the Inter-Press Service (IPS):

"Filling Another Coffin Will Not Bring Our Loved Ones Back"
Kanya D'Almeida interviews RENNY CUSHING, founder of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR)

WASHINGTON, Sep 13, 2011 (IPS) - With the death penalty still a fixture in the criminal justice apparatus of many U.S. states, the voices of murder victims' families who oppose capital punishment are bringing a deeply personal perspective to the debate.

IPS spoke with Renny Cushing, founder and executive director of
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), whose father's murder in 1988 set him on a tireless course of human rights advocacy.

A declared victim-abolitionist, Cushing has been a pioneer in the movement to link death penalty abolition groups with the victims' rights movement. He lives by the dictum that "filling another coffin will not bring our loved ones back – it will only give birth to yet another broken, grieving family."

Co-author of "Dignity Denied: The Experience of Murder Victims' Family Members Who Oppose the Death Penalty", and "I Don't Want Another Kid to Die", a collection of homicide victims' family members' testimonies against the juvenile death penalty, Cushing tours the U.S. and the world, demanding universal dignity and human rights for all.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What was the vision behind MVFHR?

A: MVFHR was founded on Dec. 10, 2004 – International Human Rights Day – by a group of families and survivors of homicide victims who had seen their loved ones murdered by serial killers, attacked by terrorists, disappeared or fallen victim to state-sponsored executions.

We oppose the death penalty on human rights grounds and believe that it's a fundamental violation of the right to life, of Articles 3 and 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Though we are U.S.-based, we're committed to the concept of "abolition without borders", so we've always strived to have a presence outside the country, to make public that we are working in solidarity with other countries and peoples who are struggling to end the death penalty.

Q: What has some of this international solidarity looked like?

A: For example, representatives of MVFHR gathered in South Korea last week to commemorate the country's 5,000th day without an execution. Korea is also a 5,000-year-old country, nation and culture and it was a wonderful occasion on which to celebrate the fact that, though the death penalty has remained in place since South Korea's independence in 1948, a zero execution policy since 1997 has created a de facto abolitionist nation.

Since we first traveled to South Korea in 2004 to meet with lawmakers who had then drafted a death penalty abolition bill, we have been mindful of the importance of international solidarity in this matter, of adding our voices to the growing international movement for abolition. Already MVFHR is a member of the Asia Death Penalty Abolition Network and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Once you become the survivor of a murder victim, you immediately assume an identity within society that can be leveraged to advocate for human rights. We have an important stake in decision-making and policy on capital punishment, about what society does in the aftermaths of murder. And though there are significant cultural differences when working transnationally, there is also a universal element to grief and pain that should be mobilised in our struggle.

Q: What are some of these universalities?

A: Well, we have worked with victims, in South Korea particularly, who have expressed similar sentiments to those of us who fight the death penalty in the U.S., that society places a burden on survivors to go out and seek revenge. One survivor of her own daughter's death told me that she was often made to feel like a sinner, fighting against the death penalty even after her own child had been murdered.

Another man I met, whose mother, wife and son were all murdered by a serial killer, has had to change his address and phone number in order to avoid the social repercussions of attempting to work for abolition. There's a terrible stigma attached to this kind of activism in our society, and our work often leads to us being isolated or ostracised.

Often I find myself, or people in my position, being depicted as either psychos or saints. The reality is that we are people who have lived through unspeakable horror, whose lives have unfurled rapidly, and we've come to the conclusion that filling another coffin doesn't bring our loved ones back, it just gives birth to another broken, grieving family.

Q: What are your thoughts about a society that supports the death penalty?

A: One of the things that people have to realise is that if you give your government the power to kill its people, it will use it. And as long as the government kills its own people, it sets the example that people and institutions have the right to take life.

In fact, governments should be setting the example that vengefulness will never be a symbol of democracy. I think South Africa is a great example in this regard. Its great leader Nelson Mandela once faced the death penalty and spent 27 years in prison. When he finally got out, he didn't keep looking over his shoulder seeking revenge. He understood that it was much more important for him to once and for all lift the burden of apartheid from his nation. When he finally became the president, it was of a new South Africa, one that had abolished the death penalty.

It is only by ending the death penalty that we will be able to safeguard, respect and uphold the rights of every individual.

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