Human Rights Day in Belfast

Over the years, one of my academic and activist passions has been the issue of capital punishment and the question of human rights for incarcerated persons. This interest has led me to a series of heartbreaking and fascinating events, organizations, and individuals who have inspired me to continued action.

For Human Rights Day on December 10, the students in the Human Rights Program at Queen’s University were invited to hold an event of some kind. We chose a speaking event focused on capital punishment.

On that Monday night, we filled the Great Hall of Queen’s to hear Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle discuss their experiences as death row exonerees.  More than 130 people from all over Belfast crowded together to hear Jacobs’ and Pringle’s stories of their wrongful convictions in the US and the Republic of Ireland respectively and how they each coped with the idea of impending death and with their years of imprisonment. They spoke of the how their convictions were overtunred and their experiences with freedom and returning to life in the outside world.

The lessons I drew from their talks have to do with questions of forgiveness, of human resilience, and of how crucial it is that society guard against corruption and abuses. From a legal perspective in Northern Ireland, and in Europe generally, the death penalty itself is an affront to human dignity and human rights.  From the perspective of an audience in Belfast, the American criminal justice system does not look like a bastion of justice. When Sunny Jacobs described the US “discovery” process and explained that the prosecutor in her case had withheld ten boxes of evidence from her defense attorney, the audience around me reacted in confusion and horror. I believe that the US can do better.

The speakers offered several important overarching ideas:

• Corruption occurs when a system does not take into account human nature and the very understandable desire to win. When the prosecution becomes focused on winning, rather than on achieving justice, abuses occur. The same thing happens in politics and business and on grade-school exams.

• “There is no justice, there is JUST US, and we collectively have the power to make a difference to the things that matter,” in the words of one of the speakers.

• Anger and bitterness have the power to harm only one person, and that is the person who is bringing anger and bitterness into their hearts.

• We cannot control what happens in the world around us, but we do control what happens within our own skins, what enters our hearts and how we spend our internal time.

• Injustice can happen to anyone. It is our collective job to ensure that it does not.

I feel enormously privileged to have spent an evening hearing these stories from folks who have experienced unbelievable harms first-hand. I particularly like the idea of justice as “just us.” All of us out there: we have a lot of work to do.

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