Around the world, more and more civil society representatives are mobilising, calling for the abolition of the death penalty
October 10 marks the World and European Day against the Death Penalty. In an increasing number of countries around the world, capital punishment now belongs to history. Among the 192 countries recognised by the United Nations, 140 have abolished the death penalty. Three times, the General Assembly of the United Nations has passed resolutions by powerful majorities calling for a universal moratorium on the death penalty, pending its full abolition. Along with the United States, however, a number of countries in Asia (including China, India and Japan), the Middle East and the Arab World are still retentionist although the frequency of use of the death penalty varies widely. In Europe, only Belarus still executes people.
The European Union has made the abolition of capital punishment one of the preconditions for membership. While the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union states in its Article 2 that “No one shall be condemned to the death penalty or executed,” the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg forbids extradition by the Member States of the Council of Europe of anyone that could be sentenced to death in a country that has retained capital punishment.
Another significant milestone was the Rome Treaty creating the International Criminal Court which envisages life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. In the words of Robert Badinter, the man who, as Minister of Justice, led the battle for abolition in France, this demonstrated “the recognition of abolition as a principle of universal value that rejects the death penalty in the most extreme cases, where humanity denies itself the power to execute the executioners of humanity.”
Around the world, more and more civil society representatives are mobilising, calling for the abolition of the death penalty. In June 2013, Madrid hosted the 5th Congress against the death penalty bringing together government and civil society representatives, academia, lawyers and individuals striving for abolition.
Although utilised by some countries for crimes such as drug trafficking, rape, embezzlement, adultery, blasphemy and kidnapping, the sentence of death is usually invoked for the most serious of crimes such as murder. In the outcry that follows a particularly heinous crime, opposition to the death penalty is unlikely to be popular. Indeed, in a number of countries that have abolished the death penalty, public opinion remained favourable to it until the end.
To be brief, the case for abolition is based on the following cumulative and trenchant arguments, each one of which on its own should be sufficient: two wrongs do not compensate for each other under any higher moral code; the right to life is unconditional and universal; the fear of capital punishment (e.g. for rape) may cause a criminal to kill his victim, thus removing a witness; a miscarriage of justice in wrongfully convicting and sentencing a person to death cannot be revoked; there is no statistical link between the death penalty and the reduction of criminality; and there are other and better ways to deter serious crimes.
To the ancient idea of an eye for eye, tooth for a tooth, the reasoned and correct riposte is that of Mahatma Gandhi: “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” This year marks the 250th anniversary of the publication of Cesare Beccaria’s famous text Dei Delitte e Delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishment) — a path-breaking approach advocating the abolition of the death penalty. Gradually but persistently his views have gained acceptance; we believe that it is time now to move towards universal abolition.
(João Cravinho is the Ambassador of the European Union to India.)