Less about saving lives than feeling superior

The UK-based attempt to abolish the death penalty in the US reeks of American Revolution-era condescension.

Patrick Hayes

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At the end of last year it was reported that the US was running short of the anaesthetic drug sodium thiopental. Given that sodium thiopental is deemed essential to a basic healthcare system by no less a body than the World Health Organisation, America’s decision to start importing the drug from the UK might have been deemed sensible. But the thing about sodium thiopental is that it’s not just used in healthcare; it is also used by US state authorities to put people to death.

This was clearly too big an opportunity to miss for UK-based legal charity Reprieve, an organisation whose stated aim is ‘to use the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay’. So, since discovering that the US has been sourcing sodium thiopental from the UK, the charity has been urging UK business secretary Vince Cable to impose an export ban on it.

Cable initially refused to impose a ban. He argued that the drug has legitimate medicinal uses and, if its export was banned, the US would simply source it from elsewhere. Campaigners responded by accusing Cable of having ‘blood on his hands’. Or as Richard Stein, a solicitor working alongside Reprieve, put it: ‘It is most disappointing that although Vince Cable says he and his government oppose the death penalty, he is unwilling to take this small step which could save the [lives of American prisoners]. We will be asking the court to force him to act.’

Ultimately, however, the court did not have to force Cable to act. Instead, Cable reversed his earlier decision after, he claimed, being presented with evidence that sodium thiopental was being exported solely for use in lethal injections. So, from now on, an export license will have to be attained before the drug is shipped abroad.

Despite this u-turn, Cable’s initial argument – that, should a ban be imposed, the drugs would just be sourced from elsewhere – remains unanswered. Reprieve was content simply to deem it ‘unworthy of a response’: ‘If something is immoral it does not matter that someone else will commit the offence.’ Reprieve’s failure to respond to a legitimate argument, on the basis that it is morally beneath it to do so, is telling. Because for all the admittedly harrowing stories of prisoners whose lives could be extinguished by UK-produced chemicals, banning the export of these particular chemicals will do nothing to prevent the US from finding another method of execution. Reprieve’s legal wrangling may have bought death-row inmates a little time, but that is all.

Given the fact that the lives of these inmates aren’t likely to be saved, what is really driving this attempt to block the export of sodium thiopental? An article by Cherie Blair QC sheds some light on the real impulse behind the Reprieve campaign. ‘Whether or not [Reprieve] can convince the court to overturn business secretary Vince Cable’s refusal to add sodium thiopental to the list of banned goods’, she wrote before Cable’s own u-turn, ‘the case highlights the continued use of the death penalty across the world’.

It seems, then, that the case has more to do with ‘highlighting’ the evils of the death penalty in general than saving lives. It is about sending the message to countries that still have the death penalty that they are in the wrong; and, conversely, that we in the desperately moralising UK are firmly in the right.

Cable’s change of heart is not only unsurprising, it now means his position accords with the Lib-Con government’s objectives as outlined in the Global Abolition of the Death Penalty strategy document. Here we learn that the UK government ‘opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle because it undermines human dignity’. It even outlines aims for the death penalty to be abolished across the US ‘on a state by state basis’.

Such a nationwide abolition of the death penalty would not only restore dignity to the degenerate Americans; it seems it may also help to civilise other countries, too: ‘[I]f the USA abolished the death penalty, it would be likely to have a significant knock-on effect in other retentionist countries and would send a positive message to the rest of the world.’ What amounts to moral interference in the sovereign affairs of other countries is defended in the name of the people living there: ‘The UK cares about the death penalty because promoting human rights and democracy overseas is a priority for [the government].’

Yet far from ‘promoting democracy’, the UK government is actually attempting to interfere with the policies of a democratically elected government. The message seems clear: our interference is warranted as we in the UK are more rational, morally superior beings who can be better trusted to administer your affairs than you can. The view of Americans held by the UK government seems to have barely moved on since the American Revolution – they remain brutish, immoral degenerates needing paternalistic guidance to do what’s right.

Building on its victory against Cable, Reprieve is looking to get new recruits for its moral crusade, contacting pharmaceutical companies and asking them to sign up to a voluntary ‘Hippocratic oath’ to prevent the further sale of drugs unless their ‘ethical’ use has been ensured. Reprieve is also naming and shaming the ones who don’t play ball and exposing those who have exported drugs for lethal injections. Reprieve is now setting its sights on recruiting the EU to its cause, threatening litigation in the European Court of Human Rights if an EU-wide ban on the export of drugs used for lethal injections isn’t imposed.

Reprieve, alongside its political cohorts, has made no attempt to try to win the debate about the death penalty. It has not attempted to encourage citizens within the US to choose to abolish it. The abolition of the death penalty in the US and elsewhere, achieved through public debate and the political process, would be a good thing. Instead, however, Reprieve has opted for the legal high-road. It seems that these self-appointed moral crusaders are more than happy to attain their goal by using red tape and shaming ‘retentionist’ countries into submission. Far from promoting democracy and human dignity, this campaign undermines both.

Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.

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