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Helen Kearney - August 2012 journal letter

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QUNO, Geneva

Dear Friends,

It seems like so much has happened since I wrote my last journal letter that I'm not quite sure where to start. It also feels somewhat odd to be writing my final letter when I am in fact continuing here at QUNO and my work is by no means complete. Exceptionally, both Lynn and I are staying on as Project Officers. This means that Quaker House is even more busy and productive than usual.

The opportunity to take part in the Friends' World Gathering in Kenya this April stands out clearly as a highlight. Prior to this, I had really only spent time with liberal, unprogrammed Friends in Europe. I enjoyed the diversity of belief and opinion, the singing, the football and the atmosphere of respect and mutual support. After the conference, Lynn and I stayed with a Friend and his family in rural Kenya. The Social Concerns Committee of Geneva Monthly Meeting is now supporting him to organise a football tournament for local youth around the time of the next elections, in an area that was badly hit by post-election violence in 2008. We have been communicating regularly by email and discussing important topics such as how many whistles to buy, what colour the shirts should be and what type of medals to award.

Another major highlight was the conference 'Countering the Militarization of Youth' in Darmstadt, Germany, organised by War Resisters International. I can honestly say it was one of the best conferences I have attended – in terms of its internationality, the diversity of perspectives represented, and the sincerity and commitment of participants. Together with a colleague from the NGO Terres des hommes, I facilitated a workshop on child rights and a discussion on the issues surrounding the use of social media as a youth news source.

In July, QUNO welcomed a group of exceptionally bright, engaged and thoughtful young people to take part in the annual summer school. I am told that we had an unusually smooth and stress-free two weeks, as we travelled around the various Geneva-based organizations and learned about their work.

Looking forward, I will spend the next three months working on the new project 'Children of Parents Sentenced to Death'. I feel extremely lucky and excited to be able to focus on an issue touching on two topics that I am passionate about: child rights and capital punishment. I am also keen to be involved in death penalty work in the Geneva environment. The steady move towards abolition around the world is arguably the greatest triumph of international human rights law and the ideals proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We can see the roots of contemporary abolitionist efforts in the writings of Enlightenment thinkers such as Cesare Beccaria and Voltaire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many early Quakers also objected to capital punishment. William Penn reduced the number of capital offences in Penn state in 1682 and John Bellers was the first Quaker abolitionist in eighteenth century Britain. However, the modern abolitionist movement as we know it really began in the late 1940s – which is why the UN in Geneva is an important place to engage in this work. In Europe, several of the former dictatorships (including Germany and Italy) abolished the death penalty as part of the 'transitional justice' process whereby past human rights violations were addressed and countries moved towards peace and democracy. It was also in the late 1940s that human rights law was established as the guiding normative regime for the newly founded UN. Human rights ideals informed regional organisations such as the African Union, the Council of Europe, the Organisation of American States, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union. For these international organisations, the control and abolition of the death penalty have become a major part of their standard setting and monitoring responsibilities.

The British Quaker Peace & Social Witness statement on the death penalty declares 'judicial execution serves no purpose but to perpetuate the trauma'. This is the perspective from which QUNO began to engage with this issue. Restorative justice theory posits that the first step to providing justice after a crime has been committed is to establish who has been harmed. A small but growing body of evidence suggests that the children and family are deeply harmed when a loved one is sentenced to death or executed. QUNO's project aims to reframe questions of justice by including the routinely omitted perspectives of the children of the condemned. Proposing restorative justice as an analytic framework enables us to show the international community that healing strategies and tactics do exist as alternatives to the death penalty.

Some countries still resist attempts to speak of the death penalty in the language of human rights. Recently, both Singapore and Trinidad and Tobago have claimed 'the death penalty is not a human rights issue'. When British father of five Akmal Shaikh was executed in China in 2009, the Chinese Ambassador in London stated that the death penalty was not a matter of human rights and that 'no one had the right to comment on China's judicial sovereignty'.

However, almost no State would dispute the fact that child rights are human rights issues. The Convention for the Rights for the Child is the most widely ratified human rights treaty on earth. Everyone is onboard, except for the USA and Somalia (and Somalia have announced plans to ratify).

This work may indeed add a crucial new voice to the death penalty debate, but this is not its raison d'être. The children of the condemned are important in their own right. When they suffer a massive, life-changing trauma as the result of the State's criminal justice policies, States have obligations to ensure that their rights are upheld and protected.

So it is with one eye on the past and one eye on the future that I would like to thank Friends for your continued support of the Peaceworker scheme. My year at QUNO has been an outstanding learning experience. I have had the opportunity to work a UN environment that is often closed to the many people who cannot fund lengthy unpaid internships. I have felt the continual support of a wide-reaching network of informed and interested Friends, and of the whole team of 2011 peaceworkers.

Thank you all.
In Friendship
Helen Kearney

August 2012