This was the message that UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon delivered on 10th of October 2014, the World day against Death Penalty. Death penalty is still carried out in 22 countries and in many cases after proceedings which do not respect international standards. Progress on this issue was made in the last years but in 2013 the number of judicial executions increased by 15%, although available data are incomplete.
Death penalty is still a reality in many countries and the UN Secretary called on States to abolish it and ratify the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which prohibits it. He added that States should at least adopt a moratorium, remembering that the General Assembly of the United Nations approved a first resolution on the Moratorium of death penalty in 2007.
Last year was not a positive one for those who fight against death penalty, since the reported executions increased by 15% with respect to 2012. Amnesty International reports 778 judicial executions in 22 countries but there are no data for Egypt and Syria and these figures do not include China because executions are covered by the State secret. Hands off Cain, an NGO which fights the death penalty in the world, reported that in China at least 3000 executions were carried out last year and 1106 in the rest of the world. Almost 80% of the known executions were carried out in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia while Indonesia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Viet Nam resumed capital punishment. Discrepancies in data delivered by different reports result from the fact that not all the countries report executions that they carry out and sometimes the figures presented are based on estimates.
World Coalition against the Death Penalty declares that there are 141 countries which are abolitionist in law or in practice, since they have adopted an official moratorium or they have not carried out death sentences. The EU is now free from death penalty but also the Countries of the Council of Europe. In the Americas the only country which still retains this penalty is the USA but within USA there are 18 States free from it.
The World Coalition against Death Penalty aims at eliminating it by lobbying international organisations and States, by organising international campaigns, including the World Day against Death Penalty and by supporting national and regional abolitionist forces.
In some countries the aim is that of reducing the scope of application of capital punishment, since it is used also for crimes such as adultery (Saudi Arabia), drug offences (China, Indonesia, Iran, Laos, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Thailand, UAE, Viet Nam and Yemen), blasphemy (Pakistan), economic crimes (China, North Korea and Viet Nam), rape (Iran, Kuwait, Somalia and United Arab Emirates) or aggravated robbery (Kenia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Sudan). Also homosexuality is considered a crime punished by death penalty in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Mauritania. Narrowing the scope of its application is considered the first step towards elimination of this type of punishment.
Another strategy pursued by all actors involved in the fight against death penalty is that of excluding some categories of people from being sentenced to death. These are minors who are still being executed in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen, pregnant women, people suffering from mental illness or mentally retarded people.
But why should States abolish death penalty?
The first argument used by retentionist States is that death penalty has a deterrent effect. The problem is that there are plenty of studies on this issue but conclusions are not unanimous. There is still no evidence that death penalty decreases the number of crimes for which it is applied.
Opponents of capital punishment argue that death penalty is not reversible and that there is the risk that innocent people could be put to death because of miscarriage of justice. A recent study carried out by Samuel R. Gross and others of the University of Michigan established that at least 4% of people put to death are innocent. In addition, death sentence is not applied without discrimination, and poor, minorities and members of some racial or religious groups are more likely to be sentenced to death. For example, in the USA black persons are more likely to be sentenced to death than white persons for the same type of crime.
Another strong argument against the use of death penalty is that in some countries it is inflicted during proceedings that do not meet international fair trial standards and where confessions are obtained through torture.
The European Court of Human Rights established in 1989 in the case Soering v. UK that death punishment can amount to inhuman and degrading punishment because of the long time spent on the death row by people sentenced to death who do not know when the sentence will be carried out. The psychological condition of waiting to be put to death is considered by the Court as inhuman and degrading punishment.
The problem is that in some countries population still believes that death penalty is fair or useful and they do not see the need to repeal it. Having the support of population does not make a wrong thing right. People also supported slavery but at some point this was repealed and now no one can say that it was a right thing. The truth is that important changes need time, the progress made by European States in this field are a sign of hope that situation can change and must change also in other parts of the world.
(Ana Daniela Sanda)
To know more:
-. Amnesty International Report on Death sentences and executions in 2013 http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/
-. Hands off Cain: 2014 Report on death penalty http://www.handsoffcain.info/bancadati
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 67/176 Moratorium on the use of the death penalty http://www.un.org/ga/search
-. Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty http://www.ohchr.org/EN
Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death http://www.pnas.org/content/111/20/7230.full