End the Gravest Human Rights Abuse

10/10/2013 02:47 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Today, 140 countries have banned the death penalty in law or in practice. And the United States needs to be the 141st. This archaic and cruel act is not punishment served or justice delivered. It is cruel, inhuman and degrading, and the ultimate denial of human rights. And it must stop now.

Activists will mark the 11th Annual World Day Against the Death Penalty by gathering in Indianapolis this weekend to recommit their efforts to end the death penalty in the United States and around the globe.

The struggle for justice is deep and personal for me. As a former attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, I represented men facing this inhumane retribution throughout the Deep South. I investigated and brought litigation that saved the lives and led to the release of three black teens on death row wrongfully convicted in Tennessee.

However, there were far more men I could not keep from being executed. Each execution I witnessed haunts me. This recurring nightmare is the driving force that compels me to push for an end to this brutal practice around the world.

The trend towards ending the death penalty is gaining momentum in the United States: six states have abolished it in the last six years and other states rarely invoke the law.

Out of the 3,143 counties in the United States, 62 counties, or just 2 percent, representing just 15.6 percent of the total population, are responsible for 52 percent - more than half - of all executions and 56 percent of the current U.S. death row population.

Why are Americans turning away from capital punishment? While our experience with capital punishment has been fraught with abuses of power, error and basic inhumanity, the bottom line is the deliberate killing of a human being remains inherently cruel and inhumane. And more and more people realize that justice does not come at the expense of a life taken.

Globally, the fundamental brutality of executions has gained much more widespread acceptance in recent years. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions in 2012.

As we work to abolish the death penalty in our individual states and our country, we must remember and celebrate that we are not alone. In almost all of Europe, and most of South America, capital punishment has been banished. Where it still exists, Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, activists like us are working to end this cruel act in their own countries.

The human rights movement has no borders or boundaries and there is strength and inspiration in numbers. We must band together to stop the gravest of human rights abuses - the taking of a life - locally and globally. The struggle to abolish this irreversible act of violence continues until all 50 states and the federal government has erased this law from the books in the U.S. as well as in those governments in Saudi Arabia, Gambia, India, Kuwait, Nigeria and Vietnam among others.

When we connect people on a very personal level to injustices globally by bringing human rights home, we understand the power of our own work and words. When the student activist at U.C. Berkeley knocks on hundreds of doors to try to pass a death penalty abolition proposition in California, he or she is engaged in the very same human rights struggle as a woman whose husband was beheaded in Saudi Arabia for "blasphemy."

To help bring an end to this cruel human rights abuse, reach out to your legislator, member of Congress or your neighbor. Demand that this cruel practice ends now. Not tomorrow, but today.

The power to kill its prisoners is a power no state or government should possess. It is a power that cannot be exercised fairly, and it is a violation of the "most precious and comprehensive of all human rights," as Frederick Douglass once wrote of the right to life.

Steven W. Hawkins is the new executive director of Amnesty International USA and one of the United States' premier experts on the death penalty.