European Union Financing Efforts to End Death Penalty in U.S.

Giving millions of dollars in grants to American nonprofits

death chamber at the Missouri Correctional Center / AP
October 30, 2013

The European Union is financing efforts to abolish the death penalty in the United States through millions of dollars in grants to American nonprofits, EU records show.

The EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) has disbursed grants worth millions of dollars to a host of U.S.-based groups for campaigns aimed at ending or eroding support for capital punishment.

Experts say the expenditures raise concerns about the influence of foreign governments on American policy.

The EU is flatly opposed to capital punishment. "Its abolition is a key objective for the union’s human rights policy," the union’s website states.

EIDHR doles out millions of euros each year to groups that oppose the death penalty.

Those grants are "aimed at promoting the restrictive use of, the establishment of a moratorium on, and the abolition of the death penalty."

EIDHR gave 495,000 euros to Equal Justice USA in fiscal year 2012 for a project called "Breaking Barriers: Engaging New Voices to Abolish the Death Penalty in the United States."

EJUSA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, meaning its work must focus on education, rather than advocacy. But a EU description of the Breaking Barriers program says one of its purposes is to "advocate for abolition."

Shari Silberstein, EJUSA’s executive director, said the group acts within all applicable legal constraints, including the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).

FARA requires groups to file disclosures with the Justice Department if it conducts advocacy work on behalf of a foreign government.

"We determined with our attorneys that it did not apply to us," Silberstein explained in an email. "EJUSA does engage in some lobbying (as allowed within our legal limits), but no EU funds are used for those activities."

The roughly $680,000 the group received from the EIDHR made up a large portion of its revenue. According to EJUSA’s website, its fiscal year 2012 budget was "just over $1 million."

Silberstein said her group received the EIDHR grant for "public education and outreach activities" involving "the creation and dissemination of public education materials, media, conference attendance, and networking."

Luke Coffey, a Margaret Thatcher fellow at the Heritage Foundation, balked at the EU’s campaign, saying decisions about the death penalty are made at the state—not federal or international—level.

"The EU is a very undemocratic organization which is suffering from very low popularity right now," Coffey said. "They have bigger problems to worry about."

The EU has given out more than 3.5 million euros ($4.8 million) since 2009 to seven groups for efforts to combat the death penalty in the United States.

Other recipient organizations include the American Bar Association’s Fund for Justice and Education and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Both are also 501(c)(3) groups.

While support for capital punishment has declined in recent years, a Gallup poll released this week shows that a large majority of Americans continue to support the practice.