A world shift from execution

Since 1990, 108 nations have abolished the death penalty or suspended executions.

As Timothy McVeigh's execution, now scheduled for Monday, reignites emotional arguments about the value and morality of the death penalty, the world is no less divided than Americans over this vexed question.

But the terms of the debate are changing.

In the European Union - capital punishment-free zone - abolitionists no longer argue about whether executions deter crime. Now, campaigners are going global with a moral crusade, arguing that the death penalty violates a basic human right to life. And they're gaining converts. This month, Chile will join 108 other nations in the past decade that have struck capital punishment from their statutes, or declared a moratorium on executions.

A new Monitor/TIPP poll shows that in the US, No. 3 in executions worldwide, public support has slipped lately.

As in the US, public support fluctuates but in many countries polls show that the death penalty remains popular as the ultimate criminal deterrent. China leads the way as a practitioner of capital punishment.

But outside of the US and China, political leaders are increasingly rejecting such punishment on ethical grounds.

"In the modern conscience, the death penalty is not an internal matter of justice, but part of human rights, of general concern," says Mario Marazziti, an Italian activist who last December handed United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan 3 million signatures on an international petition calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

None of the 15 members of the European Union allow capital punishment, and the 41-member Council of Europe does not accept new members until they abolish the practice, which has led a number of East European countries to strike it from their lawbooks, as Ukraine did in May.

This week, the council's human rights committee recommended stripping the US and Japan of their observer status in the organization, unless both agree to cease executions and repeal the death penalty.

The EU, in addition, has adopted an activist stance against the death penalty: Its ambassador to Washington regularly presents letters of protest to governors of US states where prisoners are executed, and the EU is one of the sponsors of the first World Congress against the Death Penalty, to be held this month in Strasbourg, France.

Issue of 'moral leadership'

The issue is a major bone of contention. As former US ambassador Felix Rohatyn left Paris earlier this year, he wrote in the Washington Post that "during my nearly four years in France, no single issue evoked as much passion and as much protest as executions in the United States." America's "moral leadership is under challenge," he warned.

Since 1990, more than 30 countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe have abolished capital punishment for all crimes, according to the human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Eighty-seven countries retain the death penalty and use it. Nearly 90 percent of the 1,457 executions last year took place in just four countries: China, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Iran.

In China, the courts hand down more death sentences a year than all other countries in the world combined. And the follow-through is rapid. Since April 11, an estimated 1,000 people have been put to death in a national "Strike Hard" campaign designed to deter crime and corruption in a nation where such lawlessness is seen as a political threat to the ruling government.

And in Southeast Asia, executions are on the rise as governments apply the death penalty to drug smugglers as well as to murderers. In April, the National Assembly of Laos amended the capital punishment law to make drug trafficking and drug possession offenses punishable by death.

At the other end of the spectrum, in Western Europe, nobody has been executed since 1977 and no political parties other than a few fringe groups on the extreme right are suggesting that the death penalty should be reinstated.

In China, as many as 70 crimes are punishable by death - ranging from counterrevolutionary sabotage to selling a panda skin, from tax evasion to murder. Although government guidelines reserve the death sentence for extreme cases only, provincial courts apply it massively and inconsistently and without much regard for criminal procedure, human rights activists say.

Especially during China's so-called Strike Hard anti-crime campaigns, "it is very clear that local law enforcement is under pressure to solve cases, and therefore they are willing to cut corners," says Sophia Woodman, a researcher with Human Rights in China, a Hong Kong-based group. "This means torture, forced confessions, and very unfair practices in terms of trial."

Officials in China argue that the Strike Hard campaign sends an important message that the state is still in charge, at a time when economic and political freedoms are growing.

In Saudi Arabia, where trials are often held in secret, the scope of the death penalty has been widened to cover adultery, witchcraft, and apostasy as well as violent crimes. Denied lawyers, defendants often do not know they have been sentenced to death until they are led out to be beheaded, according to former inmates interviewed by Amnesty International, a leading death -penalty critic.

Beheading is also a favorite means of execution in Iraq, though it is hard to keep track of executions there, says Amnesty International, because they are rarely publicized, and it is not always clear whether a prisoner was executed by order of a court, or simply killed.

Other countries that once used the death penalty freely, though, have now abandoned it. In Russia, for example, where the death penalty was an essential weapon in Josef Stalin's purges, former President Boris Yeltsin began phasing capital punishment out in 1996.

During his last year in office, Mr. Yeltsin commuted all 700 pending death sentences, and the Constitutional Court effectively annulled the death penalty by forbidding judges to impose it until jury trials were the norm throughout the country; only nine of Russia's 89 regions meet that standard.

Law-and-order argument

Yeltsin's initiative - which he took in order to win Russia membership in the Council of Europe - was not entirely popular at home. An opinion poll last year found that 54 percent of Russians favored overturning the moratorium.

"The high level of criminality is constantly encountered," explains Alexander Gasparishvili, head of Moscow University's Center for Social Research. "The main thing that must be done from the point of view of Russians is to establish order, and to do it requires all methods, including radical ones like the death penalty."

That sort of attitude is common in many other parts of the world, such as Latin America and Africa, as well as East Asia - anywhere that people are worried about rising crime.

In Japan, for example, the Aum Shinrikyo cult's gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, and a rise in random assault and murders, has boosted support for the death penalty. A 1999 poll by the prime minister's office found 79 percent of Japanese want to keep it, and the government agrees.

"Because it is inevitable that there will be people who commit savage and heinous crimes," the death penalty "is imperative in cases where not to use it would be to not protect society and maintain law and order," said new Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama in April.

In Thailand, the government sped up the execution of five drug traffickers and gave the event wide publicity in April. "We need to have the population be afraid of committing offenses ... and be submissive to the law," says deputy prime minister Gen. Thammarak Isurangura.

Critics of the death penalty doubt that it has such a salutary effect. "There is no evidence that the use of the death penalty has ever had an effect on curbing the drug trade," argued Amnesty International in a statement in May. Nor does the fact that the current Strike Hard campaign in China is the fourth such onslaught in 20 years suggest that previous crackdowns have had the desired effect.

Because of the "limited utility" of the death penalty in China, "should we not change our point of view and look for more effective ways of preventing crime?" asks Wang Zuofu, a teacher at China's People's University and critic of capital punishment.

The most recent study on the link between the death penalty and murder rates, carried out for the UN in 1988, found that "research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment and such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming."

In many places, such practical arguments over the practical deterrent impact of the death penalty have been superceded by moral considerations about the value of human life, and here the Roman Catholic church has recently taken a leading role. In the past four years, Pope John Paul II has repeatedly condemned capital punishment and "his commitment has been a determining factor" in swinging governments' attitudes, says Vicenzo Paglia, Bishop of Terni in Italy.

In Chile, for example, which will formally abolish the death penalty on June 19, even generally conservative church leaders put their weight behind the move, and religious opinion has made itself felt elsewhere.

Former President Joseph Estrada began mass commutations of death sentences last year in the heavily Catholic Philippines; Kenyan leader Daniel arap Moi has not signed a death warrant since the mid-1980s because of his religious convictions; and in South Africa, Nelson Mandela's moral indignation at the death penalty ensured the punishment was banned under the country's post-apartheid Constitution.

"The death penalty has not been the subject of mainstream political debate," in South Africa, says David Bruce, senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Braamfontein. The new Constitution "enables politicians to wash their hands of the issue, in a sense, and may mean that the issue has less of a potential to become a political football."

That has been the case for the past 20 years in Western Europe, where the death penalty is no longer on the agenda, 34 years after the last man was put to death, in France.

Though polls suggest that in some European countries, a majority of voters would like to see capital punishment reintroduced for particularly heinous crimes, the general feeling is that "the death penalty today is like slavery or torture in the past, a heritage of the times when humanity was a more violent child," says Mr. Marazziti, a leader of the lay Catholic Sant Egidio community, based in Rome.

Guatemala's lesson

Underpinning European attitudes is a sense that state-sanctioned killings brutalize society and devalue human life. Guatemala's experience appears to support such claims.

A year ago, two convicted kidnapper-murderers were put to death by lethal injection, live on national television. The government hoped it would teach a lesson to criminals. Instead, it seems to have encouraged ordinary citizens to take matters into their own hands: 17 suspected criminals have been lynched by angry mobs so far this year.

"The government wanted these executions to have a social impact, and they got it. If anything, they've led to more barbarity," complains Emilio Goubaud, who works at Guatemala's Center for Legal Action on Human Rights.

With public opinion often not convinced by abolitionist arguments, campaigners against the death penalty are concentrating on securing at least a moratorium on executions, such as Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared last year.

Sant Egidio's global petition, which now has 3.5 million signatures, is designed "to help governments take difficult decisions ... a moratorium is a kind of bridge" toward abolition, explains Marazziti.

While there are high-profile defeats, such as Mr. McVeigh's pending execution, Marazziti points to victories, too. On June 19, a week after McVeigh's scheduled death, the lights of Rome's Colosseum will be turned on to mark Chile's abolition of the death penalty.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A world shift from execution
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today