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The death penalty: an affront to our humanity

How this "fitting conclusion" helped to heal the devastation of Saba Tekle's family is hard to comprehend. What is certain is that real concern about her relatives should have focused on providing material and moral support to help them deal with their tragic loss. The story of Saba Tekle and Dwayne Wright shows that killing is always abhorrent. The murder of Saba was brutal, shocking and devastating for her family.

[ 1999 ] [Amnesty International ]
[africa ]
[ americas ]
[ asia pacific ]
[ europe ]
[ middle east and north africa ]
[ Regional Indexes ]
[africa ]
[ americas ]
[ asia pacific ]
[ europe ]
[ middle east and north africa ]

Introduction

THE DEATH PENALTY(1)
An affront to our humanity
No solution to crime
The cruelty of executions
An unjust justice
Narrowing the scope of the death penalty
Campaigning against the death penalty
The march towards worldwide abolition
Worldwide abolition now

Amnesty International In Action(2)
Campaigning for universal human rights

Refugees(3)
Refugee protection under attack

International Organisations(4)
Rhetoric and reality


<<quote>>
'I cannot believe that to defend life and punish the person that kills, the State should in its turn kill. The death penalty is as inhuman as the crime which motivates it.'
President Eduardo Frei of Chile

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

<<quote>>
'Every person shall have the right to life. If not, the killer unwittingly achieves a final and perverse moral victory by making the state a killer too, thus reducing social abhorrence at the conscious extinction of human beings.'
Justice Sachs, South African Constitutional Court, 1995

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

<<quote>>
'I have full sympathy for the families of the victims of murder and other crimes but I do not accept that one death justifies another.'
Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, following the execution of Karla Faye Tucker in the USA, February 1998

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

<<quote>>
'Before, my views on the death penalty and executions were just the same as any typical FilipinoĽ they [criminals] deserve to die. But all of my views on executions changed when I was given the chance to watch a forum hosted by the Philippine Journey of Hope.'
A student at Siena College, the Philippines

 The state murder of Dwayne was brutal, shocking and devastating for his family. Both types of killing have a brutalizing effect on society. Both are wrong.

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No solution to crime
Some governments argue that the death penalty is necessary in societies scarred by violent crime. The ultimate punishment is needed, they say, to deter others from committing similar crimes, and to address the feelings of victims of crime and their relatives by offering commensurate retribution.

Such governments are simply abdicating their responsibilities. They should concentrate on eradicating crime by improving policing and addressing the causes of crime. The quick fix "solution" of the death penalty does no more to deter crime than other punishments while doing much to increase the climate of vio-lence. Governments could offer victims of crime and their families financial and other forms of support so their shattered lives can be rebuilt. Instead, some governments bow to popular pressure and focus on retribution, stoking up a climate of vengeance and brutality. Governments could introduce reforms to eradicate poverty, slums and despair. Instead, some governments rely on ill-equipped criminal justice systems to deal with the consequences of despair in the only way they can - by meting out ever harsher punishments.

Recent experience in Kenya has shown that the death penalty does not help to deter crime and can be used to cover up government reluctance to tackle police corruption and poverty. Kiraitu Murungi, a member of parliament, stated in 1994 during a debate on the death penalty that, "We have more violent robberies in the 1990s than in 1975 when we introduced capital punishment for violent robbery. If anything, robbery has increased despite our having capital punishment on our books." By 1998 more than 1,400 people had been sentenced to death for a range of crimes by a Kenyan justice system notorious for its widespread corruption. Many people in Kenya, including Peter Kimanthi, a police spokesman, have admitted that poverty and unemployment cause crime. Yet rather than tackling problems in the police and justice system or addressing social deprivation, the Kenyan authorities continue to rely on mandatory death sentences for serious crimes, including robbery, often imposed after grossly unfair trials.

Society should not condone the premeditated killing of defenceless people, whatever they have done. If it does, it condemns us all to live in a world where brutality is officially sanctioned, where murderers set the moral tone and where state officials are authorized to shoot, hang, poison or electrocute women and men in cold blood.

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The cruelty of executions
The death penalty is not an abstract concept. It involves inflicting severe trauma and injury on a human body to the point where life is extinguished. It means the overpowering of basic human instincts - the will to survive and the desire to help fellow human beings who are in pain. It is a repulsive act which no one should be asked to perform or witness, and which no one should have the power to authorize.

All execution methods are gruesome, and all methods of execution can go wrong.

The idea that lethal injection is somehow a "humane" way of killing is nonsense. The condemned still have to suffer the terror of waiting for their preordained moment of death, and the method of killing is not always the clinical and painless process claimed by its proponents. Many such executions have resulted in prolonged deaths, including Guatemala's first execution by lethal injection in February 1998. Manuel Martínez Coronado, an impoverished peasant farmer of indigenous descent, took 18 minutes to die, despite assurances by the authorities that the execution would be painless and "over in 30 seconds". After the execution had begun, there was a power cut, so the lethal injection machine switched off and the chemicals stopped flowing. Witnesses in the observation room also reported that the executioners had trouble finding a vein into which to insert the needle. Human Rights Procurator Julio Arango said: "I think we all have the obligation to tell what happened: his arms were bleeding heavily." The execution was broadcast live: audiences could hear Manuel Martínez Coronado's three children and their mother sobbing in the observation room as the execution took place.

This execution was an attempt by the authorities to sanitize the method of inducing death. The previous executions, Guatemala's first for 13 years, were carried out in 1996 by firing squad. One of the prisoners was not killed by the first volley of bullets. He may even have heard the order for another shot to be fired at his head to kill him. Public outrage in Guatemala and abroad forced the authorities to end the use of firing squads. A more appropriate response would have been to end the use of capital punishment altogether.

In the USA, several states still use the electric chair. One of the most recent such executions took place in Florida in 1997. Pedro Medino, a Cuban refugee with a history of mental illness, was strapped to a chair that was built in 1924. The chair malfunctioned and the black leather face mask shielding Pedro's terrified face burst into orange and blue flames, filling the death chamber with dense smoke. The power was kept on until he died.

In Afghanistan in 1998 at least five men, convicted of sodomy by Islamic Shari'a courts, were placed next to walls and then buried under the rubble as the walls were broken over them. Two of the men did not die until the next day in hospital. One man survived. In the same country people can also be executed by being stoned or hanged from cranes, or by having their throats slit. These are particularly disturbing examples of executions. But the fact is that once states believe they have the right to execute prisoners, they end up endorsing practices which are akin to torture, whatever method they choose.

Torture is universally condemned and outlawed, including by those who advocate the death penalty. Yet an execution is an extreme, purposeful, physical and mental assault on a person already rendered helpless by the state - the essential elements of torture. If hanging someone by the arms or legs until they scream out in pain is condemned as torture, how should we describe hanging someone by the neck until they are dead? If giving 100 volts of electricity to sensitive parts of the body in order to extract a confession is condemned as torture, how should we describe the administration of 2,000 volts in order to inflict death? If carrying out mock executions is condemned as torture, how should we describe the mental anguish of people who are given years to contemplate being poisoned by lethal injection at the hands of the state?

The truth is that the intervention of a legal process to allow such cruelty does not make it any less painful. The fact that the death penalty is imposed in the name of justice does not mitigate the suffering and humiliation.

In some parts of the world there has been a move towards making executions more public. It is a disturbing trend: it indicates that some governments are losing the sense of shame about what they are doing, and that in some countries people are becoming inured to brutality and death.

International bodies have condemned public executions. In 1996 the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee stated that public executions are "incompatible with human dignity". Yet in various parts of the world, governments allow - even invite - the public to witness executions. In Saudi Arabia, executions are routinely carried out in public. In the case of migrant workers, relatives may not even know that an execution is happening, yet the general public is there to watch the final moments of their loved ones.

Elsewhere, public executions are a recent development. In Rwanda, for instance, 21 men and a woman were executed by firing squad on 24 April 1998 for participating in the genocide of 1994. The executions were staged in front of large crowds which included scores of children.

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An unjust justice
The death penalty is always an unjust method of justice. It is applied unfairly - death row cells are filled with people from impoverished and ethnic minority backgrounds, those least able to defend themselves in court. Millionaires are rarely found among them. The death penalty is applied arbitrarily, depending on such random factors as the competence of lawyers, plea bargaining or pardons granted to mark the birthdays of rulers. Whether someone lives or dies can be a lottery. And the death penalty always carries the risk of ending the lives of people innocent of any crime, either because it is used as a political tool to silence government opponents for good, or because of inevitable miscarriages of justice.

Amnesty International's major campaign against human rights violations in the USA in 1998 highlighted the way race continues to play a major part in the application of the death penalty in the country. The race of the victim and that of the defendant seem to play a significant role in determining whether or not someone is sentenced to death. The number of black and white people who are murdered in the USA is almost equal, yet 82 per cent of prisoners executed since 1977 were convicted of the murder of a white person. Black people make up just 12 per cent of the country's population, but 42 per cent of those on death row.

Nationwide studies have consistently found that other factors, such as the severity of the crime and the background of the defendant, cannot explain such disparities.

In countries where the death penalty is mandatory for murder, such as Trinidad and Tobago, courts cannot take into account any mitigating factors, including the particular discrimination and violence faced by women. In September 1998 the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions appealed to Trinidad and Tobago not to execute Indravani Pamela Ramjattan, who was sentenced to death for the murder of her abusive common-law husband in 1995. Indravani Pamela Ramjattan had suffered years of violent abuse at his hands. Days before the murder, she ran away. Her husband tracked her down and brought her back to his home where for days he reportedly beat her viciously and repeatedly threatened to kill her. Indravani Pamela Ramjattan was sentenced to death along with two men who came to rescue her. The Special Rapporteur expressed her concern that the abuse and extreme violence suffered by Indravani Pamela Ramjattan - including beatings, threats to shoot her and repeated rapes - had not been considered by the investigating authorities or the courts to constitute mitigating circumstances. The Special Rapporteur stated that the death penalty was too harsh a punishment for crimes committed in such situations. Indravani Pamela Ramjattan remained in prison under sentence of death at the end of the year.

Many governments still use the death penalty to terrorize their opponents. In 1998, three years after the execution in Nigeria of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni for political reasons provoked widespread condemnation, people still faced political trials for capital offences. In April former Deputy Head of State General Oladipo Diya and five others were sentenced to death after secret and grossly unfair trials. The sentences were commuted later in the year after the Head of State died.

In Iran, Ruhollah Rawhani, a member of the Baha'i religious minority, was executed in July 1998. He had been arrested with two other men and convicted of being involved in the conversion of a Muslim woman to the Baha'i faith, even though she stated that she had been raised as a Baha'i by her parents. His two co-defendants - Sirus Dhabihi-Muqaddam and Hedayatollah Kashifi-Najafabadi - remained in danger of execution at the end of 1998.

Every year tireless campaigns by relatives and friends of those condemned to death expose miscarriages of justice, some of which succeed after it is too late to save the life of their loved one. In the United Kingdom (UK) in 1998 alone, the courts overturned two convictions which had led to executions in the 1950s, before the death penalty was abolished. In February the Court of Appeal in London quashed the conviction of Mahmood Hussein Mattan, a Somali seaman who had been hanged for murder in Cardiff, Wales, 46 years earlier. The appeal judge in the case, Lord Justice G.H. Rose, said during his ruling that capital punishment was not a "prudent culmination for a criminal justice system which is human and therefore fallible". For more than 40 years relatives of Derek Bentley, a 19-year-old epileptic with a mental age of 11, fought to prove that he was innocent of the crime for which he was hanged in 1952. The campaign, which suffered numerous defeats and humiliation at the hands of the courts, was led by Derek Bentley's sister Iris, who died in 1997 still demanding justice for her family which had been so devastated by the execution. When Derek Bentley's conviction was finally quashed in July 1998, the only surviving member of his family was his niece.

Such cases highlight an essential fault of the death penalty - that it is irrevocable. Mistakes cannot be rectified, death cannot be reversed. Yet mistakes are inevitable in all systems of justice, however scrupulous the process and however honest the participants.

A further problem is that around the world it is not just that inadvertent mistakes are made or that a few corrupt police officers pervert the course of justice. Often, international standards to ensure fair trial are routinely flouted in capital cases.

Prisoners facing death sentences are often represented by inexperienced lawyers, by lawyers appointed for political reasons by the state, or even by no lawyer at all. Defendants may not understand the charges or evidence against them, particularly if the proceedings are in a language they do not know. Sometimes they are denied the right to appeal to a court of higher jurisdiction or to petition for clemency. Some prisoners are tried before special courts lacking elementary safeguards. As a result, many prisoners each year are condemned to death after unfair trials, some of which are a travesty of justice.

Maqsood Ahmed was executed in February 1998 in Pakistan. He had been arrested in May 1989 and sentenced to death for shooting a man during a robbery. The execution went ahead despite the fact that two other men had confessed to the murder and that the Superintendent of Police had stated that Maqsood Ahmed was in police custody at the time of the murder. His lawyer called the execution a "murder of justice".

In October 1998, 24 soldiers were executed in Sierra Leone, a week after they were convicted of offences related to a military coup in May 1997. The soldiers were tried by court martial and had no right of appeal against their convictions and sentences to a higher jurisdiction.

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Narrowing the scope of the death penalty
Fortunately, the world is increasingly rejecting the legitimacy of the death penalty. One indication is the growing consensus that the death penalty should not apply to certain types of people, such as juvenile offenders, the elderly and the mentally ill. There is support for these exemptions even in countries where the public and state officials favour the use of the death penalty.

The exclusion of juvenile offenders - those under 18 years old at the time of the offence - is now so widely accepted in law and practice that it is approaching the status of a norm of customary international law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR - Article 6(5)) and other major human rights instruments prohibit sentencing juvenile offenders to death. More recently, the same prohibition was set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by all UN member states except Somalia and the USA. The very few states that do put to death juvenile offenders provoke widespread condemnation.

Since 1990 Amnesty International has documented 18 executions of juvenile offenders worldwide, carried out in six countries - Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the USA and Yemen. Nine of these were carried out in the USA, the only country known to have executed juvenile offenders in 1998. Two of these cases highlight the particularly disturbing nature of executions of young offenders (see page12).

International standards also hold that the mentally ill should be excluded from the death penalty. UN Safeguards approved in 1984 by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty ("ECOSOC Safeguards") state that executions shall not be carried out on "persons who have become insane". In 1989 ECOSOC recommended that UN member states should eliminate the death penalty "for persons suffering from mental retardation or extremely limited mental competence, whether at the stage of sentence or execution". Sadly, these exclusions have been ignored in some countries, including the USA (see page12).

International standards have established that in countries which have yet to abolish it, the death penalty should be used only for the most serious crimes. The "ECOSOC Safeguards" state that the scope of these crimes "should not go beyond intentional crimes with lethal or extremely grave consequences". In a few countries, however, people face execution for a wide range of offences which pose no threat to life, including crimes against property and peaceful political activities. In China, for example, the death penalty continues to be applied for a wide variety of violent and non-violent crimes, including tax fraud, counterfeiting, embezzlement and corruption. In June 1998 Luo Feng, a manager in the Beijing Xiwang Computer Company, was sentenced to death for embezzlement, accepting bribes and using company funds to "play the stock market", despite an apparent lack of coherent evidence.

In Myanmar, six political prisoners - Ko Thein, Naing Aung, Thant Zaw Swe, Myint Han, Khin Hlaing and Let Yar Htun - were sentenced to death in 1998. Two of them are members of the non-violent National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar's military government claimed that four of the six were members of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), an opposition group established in exile predominantly by former students who fled Myanmar after the 1988 pro-democracy movement was suppressed by the military. The six men were among a group of 39 people arrested in connection with an alleged anti-government "plot". The ABSDF stated that none of the 39 people arrested was given legal repre-sentation during their trial at a special court inside Insein Prison.

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Campaigning against the death penalty
Among those campaigning against the death penalty are some of the very people that capital punishment is supposed to help - victims of crime and their relatives. In the face of increasing evi-dence that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent against crime more effectively than other forms of punishment, proponents of the death penalty have increasingly claimed that it is needed to help the process of recovery of murder victims' families. It is true that some relatives of murder victims do find consolation in such retribution. But many others do not. Some relatives have reported that the execution of the murderer makes it more difficult to come to terms with their loss.

In the USA, for example, a small but growing number of relatives of murder victims are speaking out against the death penalty, saying that it offers no solution to their personal tragedies. In 1998 a delegation from the US group Journey of HopeĽ From Violence to Healing went to the Philippines to raise awareness of the arguments against the death penalty at a time when the Philippine government was considering ending the moratorium on executions. The trip was organized by a coalition of local non-governmental organizations, including the Free Legal Assistance Group and Amnesty International's Philippine Section. The delegation visited prisoners on death row and their families, gave numerous media interviews, took part in live radio and television debates, met religious and other officials, and held lively discussions with anti-crime groups which advocate the death penalty. Many people who had favoured the death penalty said they felt compelled to change their minds after coming into contact with the delegation. Unfortunately, at the end of the year the government announced that executions would resume in the Philippines in early 1999. More than 800 people were under sentence of death in the country.

Countless other human rights defenders and other activists also campaign against the death penalty, by promoting the arguments against the punishment and by appealing on behalf of people under sentence of death or in imminent danger of execution, calling for clemency, pardon, commutation or retrial. Each year such appeals result in the threat of execution being lifted.

For example, in India it was learned during 1998 that the death sentences against Gantela Vijayavardhana Rao and Satuluri Chalapathi Rao had been commuted to life imprisonment by the President of India. Amnesty International had joined local non-governmental organizations in appealing on the men's behalf since they were sentenced to death in September 1995 for murder committed in 1993. In Pakistan, Roop Lal, who had been held in a death cell in solitary confinement for 25 years in Sahiwal Central Jail, had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. In Belarus the Supreme Court upheld F. Verega's appeal and commuted the death sentence imposed on him in June 1997 for murder to 15 years' imprisonment. In the United Arab Emirates it was reported that the Dubai Supreme Court had referred the cases of Rabi' Ghassan Taraf and Ryan Dominic Mahoney back to the appeals court for a retrial. The two men had been convicted of drugs-related charges and sentenced to death in November 1997.

The efforts of campaigners have not only saved lives. They have also contributed to a moral and political climate in many countries which has resulted in the permanent abolition of the death penalty.

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The march towards worldwide abolition
Every year more countries abolish the death penalty. Recently, the pace of abolition has been especially remarkable.

In 1899, on the eve of the 20th century, only three states had permanently abolished the death penalty for all crimes - Costa Rica, San Marino and Venezuela. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, the number stood at eight. By the end of 1978 it had risen to 19. During the past 20 years the number has almost tripled. In 1998 the trend continued, with Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia and Lithuania abolishing the death penalty for all crimes. In addition, the Russian Minister of Justice stated that the Russian Federation would abolish the death penalty by April 1999.

By the end of 1998, 67 countries had abolished the death penalty for all offences and 14 for all but exceptional offences, such as wartime crimes. At least 24 countries which retained the death penalty in law were considered abolitionist in practice, in that they had not executed anyone for at least 10 years or had made an international commitment not to carry out executions. Some countries reduced the scope of the death penalty. For example, in Tajikistan the number of crimes carrying a possible death sentence was reduced in 1998 from 44 to 15.

International treaties to abolish the death penalty altogether continue to attract new states parties. During 1998, Belgium, Costa Rica, Liechtenstein and Nepal became parties to the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, bringing the number of states parties to 35. Belgium, Estonia and Greece ratified Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights) concerning the abolition of the death penalty, bringing the number of states parties to 30. Costa Rica and Ecuador ratified the Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty, bringing the number of states parties to six. A number of other countries had signed one or another of the protocols, indicating their intention to become parties at a later date.

In April the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted resolution 1998/8 calling on all states that maintain the punishment "to establish a moratorium on executions, with a view to completely abolishing the death penalty". The resolution was co-sponsored by 66 states, a marked increase over the 47 states which co-sponsored a similar resolution at the Commission on Human Rights in 1997. In response, 51 other states circulated a statement at the UN Economic and Social Council dissociating themselves from the resolution.

While over 90 countries can still be said to retain and use the death penalty, the number of countries which actually execute prisoners in any one year is much smaller. During 1998, at least 1,625 prisoners were executed in 37 countries and 3,899 people were sentenced to death in 78 countries. These figures include only cases known to Amnesty International; the true figures are certainly higher. As in previous years, a small number of countries accounted for the great majority of executions.

A few countries took steps to expand the scope of the death penalty or to speed up or resume executions. In January 1998 Jamaica's withdrawal from the (first) Optional Protocol to the ICCPR came into effect. This unprecedented step, which the Jamaican government took in order to speed up executions, has deprived anyone who believes that their human rights guaranteed under the ICCPR have been violated by the Jamaican authorities of the right to petition the UN Human Rights Committee. In August Trinidad and Tobago's withdrawal from the (first) Optional Protocol to the ICCPR came into effect along with its reaccession to it with a reservation that attempts to prevent anyone under sentence of death from petitioning the UN Human Rights Committee. In November the parliament in Guyana voted to take a similar course of action.

In the Bahamas Trevor Fisher and Richard Woods were executed while their petitions to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) were still pending. The IACHR had told the Bahamian government that it would issue its conclusions on the petitions within two weeks and asked the government to suspend the two men's death sentences at least until it had issued its decisions. The European Union made a similar request. However, the government ignored the requests and the two men were hanged in October. More than 190 people were on death row at the end of the year in the 13 English-speaking Caribbean countries and territories which retain the death penalty.

In Yemen, a presidential decree calling for the death penalty to be imposed on "anyone who leads a band of kidnappers or bandits or who loots public or private property" and their "partners in crime" was published in August and came into immediate effect. Execution in Yemen is by firing squad. In Gaza the Palestinian Authority carried out its first executions in 1998: two brothers were executed in August by firing squad after a military court sentenced them to death for murder committed two days previously following a summary and unjust trial.

In Japan, three men were executed about three weeks after the UN Human Rights Committee called on Japan to take measures towards abolishing the death penalty. This was the second time in five years that Japan had responded in this way to the UN Human Rights Committee's recommendations in light of Japan's periodic report. In Taiwan, the trend of an increasing number of executions continued: in 1998 at least 32 people were known to have been executed. Egypt and the DRC also saw an increasing number of executions during the year.

Despite such developments, growing international opposition to the death penalty was symbolized in 1998 with the adoption in July of the Statute of the International Criminal Court. After much debate, it was decided to exclude the death penalty as punishment for what are arguably the most heinous crimes of all - genocide, other crimes against humanity and war crimes. The clear implication is that if the death penalty should not be used for the worst possible crimes, then it should not be used for lesser crimes. In other words, it should never be used.

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Worldwide abolition now
Amnesty International, along with other abolitionist organizations, is calling for a permanent end to all executions in the year 2000. We believe this is both justified and achievable.

Our confidence is based on two trends that are reflected in this annual survey of human rights worldwide. The first is the inexorable momentum towards worldwide abolition of the death penalty, reflected in the UN Commission on Human Rights' call for a moratorium. The second is the growing number of people around the world who are campaigning for human rights.

More than 12 million people around the world have promised to do everything in their power to uphold the rights spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), including the right to life, showing the overwhelming support for fundamental human rights. Amnesty International's campaign to celebrate the 50 years of the UDHR has gained the support of ordinary people in all regions as well as of many government officials, police officers and others in positions of power.

An end to executions is an essential part of the struggle for human rights and it can be realized. Every state has the power not to carry out executions. The argument that the death penalty is needed to deter crime has been discredited by the consistent lack of scientific evidence that it acts as a deterrent more effectively than other punishments. Moreover, the death penalty negates the internationally accepted goal of rehabilitating offenders. In short, there is no penological justification for the death penalty which outweighs the human rights grounds for abolishing it.

It can take courage to call for abolition of the death penalty. Politicians may face enormous pressure from members of the public who are clamouring for action on crime. Human rights activists may face abuse for seeming to ignore the suffering of victims of crime. But the prize is worth fighting for. The death penalty not only violates fundamental human rights, it also carries the official message that killing is an appropriate response to killing. It brutalizes, it contributes to desensitizing the public to violence and it can engender an increasing toleration of other human rights abuses.

Public acceptance of abolition can be won. The way people think and behave changes over time, often after long battles and heated debates. Injustices that were the norm in earlier centuries are outlawed today. Injustices that were reluctantly accepted as inevitable by our forebears have been fought against by their descendants and overcome. Museums display thumbscrews and racks, guillotines and garrottes - instruments of torture and death once commonly in use but now serving as reminders of a cruel and distant past. Our aim is to relegate electric chairs, nooses, the guns of firing squads and lethal injections to museums, where future generations will wonder how any society could ever have sanctioned their use.

It is not by chance that for the past two decades an average of two countries a year have abolished the death penalty. Such reforms have come about because human rights defenders, lawyers, members of parliament and a vast range of grassroots activists have worked to stop executions. Sooner or later the world's governments will accept that executing people in cold blood violates fundamental human rights and serves no legitimate penal purpose. So why wait? What better way to herald a new age for humanity than for all governments to abandon the death penalty for ever?


©Copyright 1999, Amnesty International

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