Death penalty: a fatal, inhuman practice without any deterrence effect

Federico Mayor Zaragoza* – International Commission Against the Death Penalty

Opinion editorial for 10 October 2017

We observe today the 15th World Day against the Death Penalty. As of today, 105 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes.  In the past 25 years, 60 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and the number of States that carry out executions has fallen by nearly half.

But it is still not enough: the world’s most populated countries – China, India, United States of America and Indonesia   still retain capital punishment along with States like North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore.  Around half of the world’s population, who live in these countries, is not guaranteed the right to life, as prescribed in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hundreds of executions are carried out every year and thousands are under sentence of death.

Worryingly, the International Commission against the Death Penalty (ICDP) is concerned that in practically every country applying the death penalty, it has been carried out in a manner that discriminates against the marginalized sections of society including minority groups and migrant workers. Because of their limited economic means, because of their lack of knowledge of the legal systems and their rights, because of poor legal defense support, because of systemic bias that they face from law enforcement authorities, they are under greater risk of being sentenced to death.

In India, almost 75 per cent of the persons sentenced to death, and in Malaysia, nearly 90 per cent, reportedly belonged to economically vulnerable groups. In Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan hundreds are executed every year, most of whom are poor or from minority communities; in addition, there are concerns that these three countries carry out executions of those who were juveniles when they allegedly committed the crimes for which they faced the death penalty.

In the USA – where in 34 States, most of them under the governance of the Republican Party, there is no abolition or moratorium – most persons facing the death penalty even today cannot afford their own attorney at trial and most court-appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid or lacked the experience necessary to defend capital punishment trials. Moreover, prosecutors tended to seek the death penalty more often when the victim was white than when the victim was African-American or of another racial or ethnic origin. These factors have contributed to the arbitrariness of the death penalty. By doing so, the death penalty violates the right to equal dignity and this discrimination condemns them to further marginalization.

In China, the number of executions carried out is a state secret and reportedly, those executed, feared to be in the thousands, include those belonging marginalized communities including unskilled workers who have little means of defense.

In Indonesia, 13 of the 16 persons executed in the last two years were foreign nationals and there were questions of fair trials in several of these cases.

Belarus, the only country in Europe which retains the death penalty, carries out executions under a cloak of secrecy where the dates of the executions are not revealed until they are carried out and the places of burial of those executed are held secret by authorities. Many of those who are under sentence of death and executed belong to poor families and socially disadvantaged communities. Apart from Belarus, Europe is a death penalty free continent, underlined by the provisions of Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union that provides for the abolition of the death penalty.

From the experiences and beliefs of the Commissioners of the ICDP, the death penalty is not the solution to end criminality. It is usually counterproductive as it worsens poverty, discrimination and inequalities, perpetrating the circle of violence.

The right to life is a universal human right and the death penalty has no place in the 21st century.

On the World Day against the Death Penalty, ICDP notes that more than half the countries in the world have abolished capital punishment because they have recognized that modern justice systems can protect the public from crime without the irrevocable and cruel nature of the death penalty and the constant risk of executing an innocent person. These nations have recognized that state killing is wrong and fails to deter crime more effectively than other punishments. Today, ICDP joins the abolitionist movement in committing ourselves to achieve a world free of the death penalty, a world free of this discriminatory practice that is based on vengeance and bias that only enhances the ever-present risk of wrongful convictions.

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*Spanish scientist, scholar, politician, diplomat and poet. President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty. Chairman of the Foundation for a Culture of Peace. He served as Director-General of UNESCO from 1987 to 1999. 

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