It’s clear now that the movement against the death penalty is gaining momentum. Last year there wasn’t a single execution in Europe, and the number of countries that have completely abolished capital punishment reached 95. As recently as 1977, only 16 countries had banned executions.
The nations that still execute people – with China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the US the most prominent – are the exception rather than the rule. Even across North Africa and the Middle East (MENA), where the death penalty remains on the law books from Mauritania to Iran and several states carried out numerous executions last year, there is growing evidence that country by country, it’s no longer a question of whether the death penalty will be abolished, but of when. So let’s talk about how.
The path to abolition is often long and incremental. It starts by making sure that trials are fair, by commuting the death sentence to imprisonment, by prohibiting the death sentence for juvenile offenders and the mentally ill, by reducing the number of crimes that carry the death penalty and by observing moratoriums on executions.
Halting executions is the most crucial of these steps, short of legal abolition. It is striking that in the MENA region, some nations have maintained moratoriums and are increasingly prepared to support international efforts to consign executions to the history books. When Algeria co-sponsored the latest United Nations resolutions calling for a global moratorium, several other Arab states used the vote to signal their willingness to join the worldwide trend.
Against this backdrop, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia stand out more starkly each year for their high numbers of executions. Amnesty International, which releases its annual death penalty report today, documented 388 executions in Iran last year – though the actual number was probably higher – mostly for murder and drug offences but also for membership of opposition groups. They included five people who were under 18 at the time of their alleged offense, in violation of international law. One of them, Delara Darabi, was hanged on 1 May despite having been given a two-month stay of execution by the head of the judiciary on April 19.
Juvenile offenders are also executed in Saudi Arabia, which continues to execute at an alarming rate – at least 69 people were publicly beheaded during 2009. The death penalty may be imposed for many offenses, including “sorcery” – which is not defined in law but has been used to punish people for exercising their rights to freedom of thought, belief and expression.
In Iraq, the government uses executions to try to appear tough on insurgents – despite the obvious futility of wielding the death penalty against militants prepared to commit suicide attacks. The authorities should focus instead on improving the legal system, which is characterized by unfair trials, inadequate access to legal counsel, confessions extracted under torture and political interference.
We take our stand against the death penalty because we believe it is a cruel and degrading affront to human dignity and a violation of the right to life – the ultimate denial of human rights. It is a form of ritualized, cold blooded killing. And killing to show that killing is wrong is an absurdity. But public and political support for the death penalty usually ignores the rights question, concentrating instead on the idea that capital punishment is an effective measure against crime.
Scientific studies have consistently failed to find convincing evidence, however, that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. Crime figures haven’t risen in countries where executions have been abolished. And not even the best judicial system can guarantee that errors will not occur. In fact every step toward abolition is about shifting the focus of the death penalty debate from crime to human rights – and it’s up to governments to make that happen by showing the necessary leadership.
When I travel on behalf of Amnesty International, I meet people from all backgrounds, from all religious beliefs and none, all of whom share the deep sense of revulsion toward taking the life of others, no matter how heinous the crime for which they have been ordered to die. The state should not kill.
There were many signs across the world in 2009 that the movement toward abolition has enormous momentum, but it will require renewed, sustained effort. Eighteen countries carried out executions last year. In the Middle East, despite the trend towards moratoriums, the death penalty is still used in a discriminatory way against migrants and the poor.
Abolishing the death penalty in states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia might be our hardest challenge yet. However, the rapid progress since the 1970s shows us that, as with slavery and apartheid, the world is rejecting this affront to humanity.
Claudio Cordone is the interim secretary general of Amnesty International