They say you're judged by the company you keep. And the countries that execute the most people are members of quite a club.
According to Amnesty International, two-thirds of the nations of the world have abolished the death penalty, including 30 countries over the past decade. Only 21 of the 192 UN member nations carried out executions last year. China was the world leader with likely thousands of executions a year.
Following China were Iran, North Korea, and Yemen, with the U.S. in fifth place. Trailing the U.S. were Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria.
As the world trends toward abolition of the death penalty, so too is the U.S. losing some of its appetite for executions. As the Death Penalty Information Center announced in its year-end report, 2011 was the first year since 1976 -- when capital punishment was reinstated in the U.S. -- that fewer than 100 death sentences were produced in one year.
But let's not be mistaken. The death penalty, though on the decline, is still widely practiced in America, and it still is the law in 34 states.
State-sponsored executions represent the ultimate violation of human rights, and it is shameful that the U.S. is one of the world's most willing and enthusiastic executioners. China, which makes no pretenses regarding human rights, executes thousands of people a year because life is cheap in that authoritarian, hyper-capitalist state. Mass forced evictions and demolitions are commonplace for the sake of urban development, whether to make way for the Olympics, the Asian Games, a shoddy high-speed rail project, or Disneyland.
When Wang Yue, a two-year-old girl was left to die by two hit-and-run van drivers and 18 passers-by, people in China blamed a Nanjing judge for creating a climate of apathy. In 2006, the judge forced a Good Samaritan -- a young man who helped an elderly woman who had fallen in the street -- to pay her hospital expenses. The judge's rationale was that "common sense" dictated that the young man took the woman to the hospital because he was guilty.
In China, with the world's most voracious appetite for executions, 55 crimes (down from 68) are capital offenses, including nonviolent crimes such as government corruption for a relative few unlucky scapegoats, and drug smuggling. It is an arbitrary system in which political maneuvering, the absence of an independent judiciary and perhaps even public pressure play a role in who is executed.
But at least the U.S. isn't China, right? Maybe not.
In the land of the free, capital punishment remains the tip of the iceberg in a society that often disregards human dignity and human rights. Nearly one in two Americans is poor or low income, and America has the highest level of economic inequality of the advanced nations. We stand alone in our lack of a national healthcare system. Our lawmakers, legally bribed by corporations, deny climate change for the sake of profit, and squeeze working people as they reward the rich.
Executions are merely the most violent manifestation of this inequity and injustice in the land, a failure to come to terms with bad habits and the demons of an American past that continue to torment us today. In 2011, three-quarters of the executions in the U.S. took place in the South. The lion's share of executions have taken place in the former Confederacy, with its long history of racial violence and segregation, and dehumanization born out of a legacy of slavery.
The U.S. death penalty discriminates against the poor and uneducated, racial minorities and those who cannot afford adequate legal representation. And a small number of counties are responsible for seeking most of the country's death penalty prosecutions and convictions.
Meanwhile, as America touts its human rights record, it is hard to preach to others, especially China, as it continues to execute its citizens. The death penalty remains America's moral blind spot. It will take a movement, not to mention Europe cutting off America's supply of lethal injection drugs, to turn things around.
David A. Love is the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence, a national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row prisoners and their family members to become effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty.