Killing in the name of justice

There is no concept further from justice than the premeditated, cold-blooded murder of a human being by the State and in the name of that very justice. But that is precisely what the death penalty does: it violates the right to life proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the most cruel, inhuman and degrading of punishments; in other words, it is a threat to life. Every day prisoners are executed, whether they are men, women or even minors. Whatever their crime, no matter whether they are guilty or innocent, their lives are lost because of a legal system that places greater value on punishment than it does on rehabilitation.

The death penalty is the greatest exponent of torture. No matter what form it takes – electrocution, hanging, gassing, beheading, stoning, shooting or lethal injection – it is a violent punishment with no place in today’s penal justice system. Yet it continues to exist.

It continues to exist unjustly, given that it is a discriminatory, arbitrary, irreversible and non-dissuasive punishment. The death penalty is discriminatory because it is often meted out disproportionately among the poor population, minorities and people belonging to the smaller racial, ethnic and religious groups. In addition, its imposition and execution are arbitrary: in some countries it is used as a weapon of repression, a fast, brutal way of silencing political opposition. It is also an irreversible punishment, a circumstance combined with the frequent human errors and prejudices of the legal system that make it impossible to eradicate the danger of executing innocent people. According to reports, on 1st February 2011, the President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, had to pronounce a formal apology for the execution of a man in 1997, a man whose innocence had later been demonstrated. Mistakes like these have no solution since the risk of executing innocent people can never be fully completely eliminated.

On the other hand, in many countries governments claim that the death penalty is justified by its dissuasive effects. Yet there are no figures to prove that it is more effective, when compared to other severe punishments, in reducing crime. The latest figures on delinquency in abolitionist countries do not demonstrate that its abolition has detrimental effects. In Canada, for example, the murder rate per 100,000 residents dropped from its highest rate of 3.09 in 1975, the year prior to the country’s abolition of the death penalty for murder, to 2.41 in 1980, and has continued to drop even further since then. In 2003, 27 years after its abolition, the murder rate stood at 1.73 per 100,000 residents, 44% less than in 1975 and the lowest rate in three decades. Although this figure rose to 2 in 2005, it is still more than a third lower than it was when the death penalty was still in place.

The fact that there is no clear evidence to demonstrate this dissuasive effect illustrates the futility and danger of taking the hypothesis of dissuasion as a basis for developing public policy on the death penalty. Capital punishment is harsh on the delinquent, not on the crime.

Unfair trials, trials with no guarantee of justice

As far as the relationship between the death penalty and justice is concerned, it is important to underline that a great many death sentences are pronounced following unfair trials. Point 5 of the Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of those Facing the Death Penalty stipulates: ”Capital punishment may only be carried out pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court after legal process which gives all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial, at least equal to those contained in article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right of anyone suspected of or charged with a crime for which capital punishment may be imposed to adequate legal assistance at all stages of the proceedings.” Investigations carried out by Amnesty International demonstrate that a great number of sentences are imposed following unfair trials and in a discriminatory fashion in countries like Saudi Arabia, China, Iraq or Iran, among others; something which is clearly forbidden in the ICCPR and in the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

For example, shortcomings in China are the delay in access to legal aid, failure to respect presumption of innocence, political interference in legal power and admitting proof obtained through torture. In some countries it is even commonplace for the accused to have no defending counsel and to be unable to follow the legal proceedings due to having no interpreter. In Iran, Amnesty International registered death penalties imposed upon political opponents and members of ethnic minorities following unfair trials; in some cases the reports indicate that those condemned to death were tortured during their detention and refused access to legal aid. In Saudi Arabia poor immigrant workers from African and Asian countries are regularly condemned in trials which are largely secret and unfair. It is commonplace for the accused to have no legal counsel and for them to be unable to follow the legal proceedings in Arabic.

The death penalty constitutes a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it

In many countries opinion polls on the death penalty indicate that the population is in favour of such punishment as a last resort, but the truth is that what most people want is to feel protected against crime and violence. Their support of the death penalty is therefore understandable, given the fear and anger caused by violent crimes and the mistaken idea that executions can dissuade people from committing them. But the death penalty does not substitute other crime-fighting measures, such as correct and effective police action.

The death penalty favours simplistic solutions to complex human problems rather than seeking constructive solutions. Governments must neither use nor foster fear of violent crimes as a reason to continue the executions. There are leaders who have abolished the death penalty, despite the considerable obstacles facing them, and even when the majority of the population was in favour of it.

The road to abolition

Amnesty International is against the death penalty in any shape or fashion, without exception, no matter what the crime committed, the characteristics of the person accused and the method of execution used by the State. When the organisation was founded in 1961, only nine countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes and capital punishment was barely considered to be a human rights issue. Fifty years later, the figure stands at 96. There is a definite, clear-cut tendency towards abolishing the death penalty in the whole world: today, more than two thirds of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty from their legislation or at least in practice, and only under half of the retentionist countries regularly carry out executions.

The world trend towards abolition is therefore obvious. But the struggle is far from over. The past has shown us that there is no way of guaranteeing continuation of the achievements obtained in the last three decades. The executing countries are increasingly fewer in number, but they are also increasingly unmoving on the matter: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States execute more people than the rest of the world put together. In 2011, more than 17,000 people were still sitting on death rows across the world.

Even when most of the whole world says “enough is enough”, some countries prefer to turn a deaf ear...

Amnesty International

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