Sri Lanka: Amnesty International Secretary General Kumi Naidoo writes to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena


Your Excellency

I am writing to plead for the lives of prisoners who may soon be put to death if executions resume in Sri Lanka.

More than four decades ago, your country stopped the implementation of this ultimate, cruel, in human and degrading punishment, becoming one of the few South Asian countries to do so. The death penalty is now only applied by a shrinking minority of countries around the world. In December 2018, Sri Lanka was among the 121 states that voted in favour of a resolution on the “Moratorium on the use of the death penalty” at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly. Only 35 states voted against the resolution.

Implementing the death penalty for drug-related offences is unlawful. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a state party, restricts the use of the death penalty – in countries that have not yet abolished it – to the “most serious crimes”, or intentional killing.

Executions are never the solution. As criminologists have extensively demonstrated, including in studies for the United Nations, the death penalty has no unique deterrent effect. If we look around the world, there are many examples that bear this out. Consider the contrast between Hong Kong and Singapore, two similar-sized cities. Hong Kong stopped executing people more than half a century ago, while Singapore continues to implement the death penalty. The murder rate in the two cities has stayed remarkably similar over the decades.

Even in countries that retain the death penalty, there is a growing recognition that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent for drug-related crimes. The Islamic Republic of Iran has long been one of the world’s most prolific executioners. It has put to death thousands of people after convicting them of drug trafficking in grossly unfair trials. But drug trafficking and distribution remains rife, according to the Iranian government. “The truth is, the execution of drug smugglers has had no deterrent effect,” as Mohammad Baqer Olfat, Iran’s deputy head of judiciary for social affairs, conceded in 2016. Iran has now relaxed its drug laws and commuted hundreds of death sentences for people convicted of drug-related offences.

In October 2018, the Malaysian Government announced that it would be abolishing the death penalty – a country that also relied on executions to combat drug use.

Mr. President, you have favourably cited the example of the Philippines, but it abolished the death penalty in 1987. Under President Rodrigo Duterte, what the country has seen instead is a horrific wave of extrajudicial executions of suspected drug offenders over the past three years. As Amnesty International has documented, far from ridding the streets of crime, this murderous campaign has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people – including dozens of children – in what may amount to crimes against humanity. The killings, which overwhelmingly targeted people living in impoverished neighbourhoods, are currently the subject of a preliminary examination by the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.

Putting your own people to death is an irreversible act. There is no coming back from a flawed judicial process. The punishment is absolute. The mistakes are irredeemable. When it comes to the death penalty, a coerced ‘confession’, the bias of a judge, the failure to collect evidence, or an inadequate legal defence can lead to someone innocent paying the ultimate price. When it comes to extrajudicial executions, there is not even a pretence of due process.

Lastly, but most importantly, the death penalty is immoral. For those of us who believe that human life must hold the highest value, taking it away is the lowliest act. We understand this clearly when a person commits murder, but we choose to forget it when the state puts someone to death, inflicting the same pain and loss. Executions, Mr. President, are not a show of strength but an admission of weakness. They represent the failure to create a society where the protection of the right to life triumphs over the temptations of vengeance.

Amnesty International urges you to:

  • Immediately halt plans to execute 18 people, and review all cases of people under sentence of death with a view to commuting their sentences to terms of imprisonment;
  • Establish an official moratorium on executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty, in line with seven resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly since 2007, including most recently resolution 73/175 which Sri Lanka supported;

We hope that you will consider these recommendations.

Yours sincerely

Kumi Naidoo

Secretary General

Amnesty International