Good news and bad news on the death penalty as 2014 draws to a close

By Chiara Sangiorgio London,
© Orla 2011/Shutterstock.com

For those of us who are actively campaigning for an end to the death penalty – the ultimate cruel and inhuman form of punishment – the past few weeks have been a rollercoaster of good and bad news.

Since Friday, six people have been executed in Pakistan, and yesterday the government signalled that as many as 500 more could be sent to the gallows after it lifted a two-year moratorium on the death penalty.

The justification: a response to the despicable attackon an army-run school in Peshawar which killed at least 142 people, including 132 children.

Even by their atrocious standards, the Taliban undoubtedly sunk to a new low in this horrific attack. However, the response of the Pakistani government is both cynical and dangerous: proving that you are tough on crime through more killings is never the answer to combating violence.

It’s a deeply disturbing prospect and Amnesty International and many others have called for an immediate halt to the plans. Pakistan should instead focus on ensuring greater protection of civilians in the northwest of the country, where violence is a daily reality.

It is somewhat ironic that the action of the Pakistani government bucks the global trend. Last week, on 19 December, there was cause for celebration. We witnessed the UN General Assembly in New Yorkoverwhelmingly pass a resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolition of the death penalty.

It was the fifth time since 2007 a similar resolution had gone before the UNGA, and the number of countries voting in favour this year – 117 of the UN’s 193 member states – was a record high.

Although UNGA resolutions are not legally binding, they carry significant moral and political weight. The vote confirmed what Amnesty International and others have been saying for a long time – the death penalty is becoming a thing of the past, and the few countries who still execute remain an increasingly isolated minority, out of step with the rest of the world.

Yet despite the overwhelming global trend, Pakistan is not the only country to not get the message.

Over the weekend came shocking news from Jordan, where the government – without any forewarning – put to death 11 people convicted for murder. They were the first executions in the country since a death penalty moratorium was imposed eight years ago.

We are still bracing ourselves for more bad news before the year ends. In Indonesia, new President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has rejected the final mercy petition of a number of death row inmates and six executions – of whom at least four are drug traffickers – look set to happen any day. This is doubly disappointing since Jokowi came into office following a campaign where he promised to make human rights a priority.

Likewise, in Japan, further executions are likely to take place before the end of the year – and we are hearing worrying noises from Trinidad and Tobago, where the Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar is reportedly working on a new bill to resume executions which, according to her, would reduce the murder rates.

These latest developments are worrying and pose a number of vexing questions: Are we seeing an end of the year domino effect on the death penalty, where one country’s execution makes it “okay” for others to follow suit? Or is the death penalty just a way for the authorities to show their strength in front of the public, puzzled at their inability to deal with crime and restore law and order in the country? Are governments playing politics with people’s lives?

Governments around the world need to realize that there is a reason why the death penalty is only practiced by a small minority of countries. There is no evidence whatsoever that it works as a particular deterrent to crime. Fundamentally, it is a violation of the human right to life. It brutalizes us all, and we should all work together in designing and delivering safer and rights-respecting societies.

Thankfully, it is not all bad news. Apart from the UNGA vote, there are many silver linings to point to, even in the last few weeks. The Parliament of Madagascar adopted on 13 December a bill that abolishes the death penalty, which the President is due to sign into law soon. And in Thailand, a high-level official this week indicated that the government is mulling over ending capital punishment. Ultimately, the big picture couldn’t be clearer – last year, only 22 of the world’s 198 countries executed, and 140 states in total have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

This offers hope for the many of us who campaign for an end to state-sanctioned killings. Hopefully, by this time next year, we’ll have more positive news to reflect on.