A Few Thoughts on Eugene Kontorovich’s Response to My Post

by Kevin Jon Heller

Eugene has graciously responded to my earlier post; you can find his new post here. It’s well worth a read. I just want to offer a few  thoughts on Eugene’s response, because I think it fails to address the core of my critique: that it is incorrect to claim, as Eugene did in his first post, that Europe’s opposition to the juvenile death penalty is based on the idea that “minors are not really responsible for their actions.” I argued that, on the contrary, Europe’s opposition to the juvenile death penalty is part and parcel of its opposition to the death penalty itself.

Eugene’s new post provides no support for his original thesis. Here is what he argues, in order:

The EU’s position is that the death penalty is wrong under any circumstances; however, the juvenile death penalty is even wronger. And this distinction could presumably only be due to the reduced decision-making capacity of juveniles.

Thus in their amicus brief in Roper, the EU did not argue that the death penalty was unconstitutional – though they stated their opposition – rather, they argued the juvenile death penalty was unconstitutional even if the death penalty itself were constitutional. (As amici, they were in no way limited to the facts of the case, and could have submitted a much broader argument.) The EU’s opposition to the juvenile death penalty repeatedly points to an “international consensus” against it, reflected in various treaties and U.N. documents. These instruments specifically do not bar the death penalty, but do prohibit the juvenile death penalty. Thus the consensus which the EU pointed to is itself based on a belief in a fundamental distinction between juvenile and adult death penalties.

It is true that there is an international consensus against the juvenile death penalty. And it is highly likely that some of the states that are part of the international consensus oppose the juvenile death penalty because they believe juveniles have a “reduced decision-making capacity.” But nothing in the EU amicus brief suggests that European states oppose the juvenile death penalty because of the diminished moral capacity of juveniles. As I noted in my earlier post, Europe opposes the death penalty for everyone, adult and juvenile, because — in the words of the Council of Europe — “everyone’s right to life is a basic value and that the abolition of the death penalty is essential to the protection of this right and for the full recognition of the inherent dignity of all human beings.” Yes, Europe would be more than willing to argue that “the juvenile death penalty was unconstitutional even if the death penalty itself were constitutional.” But that is because the international consensus against the juvenile death penalty is much stronger, not because Europe believes juveniles “are not really responsible for their actions.” In other words, the EU’s amicus brief does not care why some states permit the adult penalty but permit the juvenile death penalty (which may well reflect a view of juvenile moral capacity); it simply cares that even those states still reject the juvenile death penalty.

To be sure, if the EU thinks the juvenile DP to be even worse, it will not be reflected in its internal policies – but it would be reflected in its external ones. An indeed, in dealing with third countries, the EU makes a fundamental distinction between the juvenile and adult death penalty. As spelled out in the EU Guidelines on the Death Penalty, Europe will provide aid and have good relations with countries that practice the death penalty, Europe’s position is that where the death penalty exists, it should always be subject to certain “minimum standards”:

Where states insist on maintaining the death penalty, the EU considers it important that the following minimum standards should be met: … iii) capital punishment may not be imposed on … Persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of their crime;

Eugene does not quote the EU’s minimum standards in full, and the text he does not quote complicates his argument that Europe views the juvenile death penalty as “worse” than the adult death penalty because of the “reduced decision-making capacity of juveniles.” Here is the paragraph in full, with the omitted text in bold:

Capital punishment may not be imposed on:
• Persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of their crime;
• Pregnant women or new mothers;
• Persons who have become insane.

The EU’s suggested ban on executing the insane clearly does reflect the idea that insane persons have a “reduced decision-making capacity.” But the ban on executing “pregnant women or new mothers” doesn’t. Their decision-making capacity is not reduced — yet the EU insists that death-penalty states not execute them, either. So which category are juveniles closest to — the insane (who should not be executed because they are not responsible for their actions) or pregnant women and new mothers (who shouldn’t be executed because it’s inherently wrong to execute them)? There is no way of knowing from the EU’s Guidelines on the Death Penalty — which means that the Guidelines don’t support Eugene’s argument that Europe views the juvenile death penalty as worse than the adult death penalty because “minors are not really responsible for their actions.”

Let me add another point of Belgian inconsistency. Allowing minors to take their lives, or have them been taken, necessarily makes assumptions about their capacity that is at odds with many liberal features of international law. International treaties, including the Rome Statute of the ICC, make the recruitment of child soldiers a crime, and European countries have been active in promoting the expansion of these norms.

Being a child soldier (under 15) is not a crime, only enlisting them. Crucially, the consent of the child, her parents or any psychologists is not a defense. Indeed, consent is presumed, as the crime covers accepting voluntary enlistees. As the Special Court for Sierra Leone put it:

The act of enlisting presupposes that the individual in question voluntarily consented to be part of the armed force or group. However, where a child under the age of 15 years is allowed to voluntarily join an armed force or group, his or her consent is not a valid defence.

But is this still a far cry from euthanasia? Not if the underlying issue is one of capacity to make life-imperiling decisions. And it is important to point out 15 year old may join armed conflict in when the defeat of their side would lead to the massacre or oppression of them and their families and the destruction of their way of life. Yet international law still prohibits their recruitment. This does not mean it can never be rational for a child to join armed forces, but rather that we make a categorical judgement that even if it is sometimes rational, they lack the judgement to make decisions that imperil their lives.

The emphasis is mine — because I think Eugene’s argument actually proves my point, not his. Eugene’s claim is that the prohibition on the recruitment of child soldiers, which European states have enthusiastically supported, reflects Europe’s view that juveniles have a “reduced decision-making capacity.” But the bolded text, which I completely agree with, indicates that, on the contrary, international law prohibits the recruitment of child soldiers because it is wrong to let juveniles engage in combat, even if they are capable of making a rational decision to do so. Differently put, international law presumes that child soldiers consent to recruitment because recruiting child soldiers is wrong even when consensual, not because juveniles can never rationally decide to become child soldiers.

The bottom line is this: there is nothing inconsistent about Belgium’s legalizing juvenile euthanasia while rejecting the juvenile death penalty and opposing the recruitment of child soldiers. Belgium simply believes that executing juveniles and recruiting child soldiers is inherently wrong, while permitting terminally ill children to make an informed decision to end their own lives is not. Those are normative positions, and Eugene is free to think they are unwise. But they are not based on an inconsistent view of whether juveniles are responsible for their actions.


2 Responses

  1. Briefly, the pregnant women point is not to the contrary. Unlike the under-18 restriction, it is about the status of the person at the time of execution, not the commission of the offense, so it does not go to their agency/culpability, but rather other (third-party) interests. 

  2. It’s all nice to compare the logic of juvenile euthanasia to that of the juvenile death penalty, but the Belgian legislator did not categorically decide that all minors have a full decision-making capacity. This needs to be established for each case of a terminally ill minor (and let’s not forget the importance of that either!) to determine their eligibility. It’s a different standard from what applies to adults or emancipated minors who were already covered by the law. 

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