The death penalty

Working for an organization whose job is to stand up for justice and freedom, and to expose abuses and injustices, I am often forced to highlight problems rather than progress.

So, as Amnesty International publishes its annual review of death sentences and executions worldwide, let’s begin with the good news: The death penalty is on the retreat.

Last year, only 20 out of 198 countries carried out executions — a figure down by more than a third from a decade ago. Ninety percent of UN member states were execution-free, while 140 countries have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

It is worth pausing to consider these figures. When Amnesty International began its global campaign against the death penalty 35 years ago — opposing it in all cases, regardless of the crime, offender, or method of execution — the world’s 16 abolitionist countries were then the minority. Today, the poles are reversed and instead those states clinging to capital punishment are the exception.

In 2011, execution-free areas included all of Europe and the former Soviet Union, except Belarus; and all of the Americas, except the USA. The Pacific region was death penalty free apart from five new sentences in Papua New Guinea.

This sea-change is testament to human rights campaigners with the courage to stand up to repression; to politicians and decision-makers with the courage to go against the political or popular grain; and to lawyers, journalists and academics with the courage to expose the truth.

They have shown that not only is the death penalty wrong — a violation of the right to life — but that once examined in any detail, the case for state-sanctioned murder collapses.

Does it deter violent crime? There is no convincing evidence for this. Countries that have abolished the death penalty often have lower murder rates than those that have not. State sanctioned killing endorses the use of force and can fuel cycles of violence and retribution.

What about popular support for executions? Such support is usually a mile wide and an inch deep. Once expedient reactions or a calculated desire by leaders and commentators to be "tough" on crime is replaced by considered discussion, and once alternative options are suggested, public support for execution recedes.

Don’t victims of crime deserve justice and closure? Yes, people who have suffered awful crimes deserve justice, but justice cannot be rooted in revenge. Murder is wrong, whether perpetrated by a person or by the state.

Some may find closure, but this is not self-evident — sometimes victims of violent crimes oppose their attackers’ execution. In the USA, Bangladeshi immigrant Rais Bhuiyan campaigned unsuccessfully for clemency for Mark Stroman, who had shot him during a series of violent crimes committed in reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Rais said: “My religion teaches that forgiveness is always better than vengeance.”

And of course there is no appeal from the grave. The US state of Illinois abandoned the death penalty in 2011 following several wrongful convictions.

No wonder some argue that the true test of support for the death penalty isn’t a willingness to execute, but a willingness to accept the possibility of killing the innocent.

Others justify capital punishment for regional, religious or cultural reasons. But the abolitionist majority includes states from all major world regions, religions and cultures.

Yet a few states persist with capital punishment, and here we must address the bad news. A small group of isolated countries executed at an alarming rate last year. Whether by beheading, hanging, lethal injection or shooting, globally at least 676 people were executed and at least 18,750 people remained under sentence of death at the year’s end.

These figures exclude thousands of executions believed to have taken place in China, the world’s leading executioner. We no longer publish figures we collect from public sources on this country, as these are likely to grossly underestimate the true number. So far China has not accepted our challenge to publish the real figures, in order to confirm their claims that there has been a significant reduction in the use of the death penalty in the country over the last four years.

Neither do our figures include credible reports of large numbers of additional executions in Iran, which are not officially acknowledged. These would almost double the official tally there.

China and Iran were joined in their willingness to execute by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and — alone in the Americas and in the G8 group of leading economies — the USA. Along with North Korea, Somalia and Yemen, these states are consistently among the highest executioners every year.

Regionally, the Middle East saw a sharp rise in recorded executions, up almost 50 per cent on 2010. Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen accounted for 99 percent of these cases.

We should also note that in most countries where people were sentenced to death or executed, it was after unfair legal proceedings. And in Belarus, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Saudi Arabia death sentences sometimes followed “confessions” extracted through duress or even torture. As so often throughout history, capital punishment was used by repressive states to remove the troublesome or unwanted.

So there is no room for complacency. Each execution is one too many. But 2011 reinforced the overall trend firmly towards abolition, and it is clear that this cruel and irrevocable punishment, which makes victims of us all, is heading inevitably towards the history books.

Salil Shetty is the secretary general of Amnesty International.

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