Monday, February 06, 2006

Respect life, abolish the death penalty

Published on Feb 6, 2006 , Nation newspaper
On January 1, a visiting Welsh student was raped and murdered on Koh Samui. When two fishermen were arrested for this horrendous crime, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra proclaimed that those convicted “must be sentenced to the harshest possible punishment”, affirming that the execution would “give remedy to the relatives and the British Government”. He appeared unaware that the UK Government has absolutely rejected the death penalty. The mother of the murdered girl has also expressed opposition to the execution of the murderers. There remains the primary reason cited by Thaksin, that the guilty had “caused serious damage to our country’s reputation”, again unaware that their execution would return Thailand to the minority of nations practising this barbaric punishment. It is time to review and question the inevitability of the death penalty.

These are the objections to the death penalty:

No human being or group of human beings can arrogate the right to put another human being to death, for whatever reason. Life is the basic right of every man, woman, and child and it cannot be denied them. Execution in any form is inhuman and cruel.

Secondly, innocent people are sometimes executed and there is no redress. Advances in forensic medicine reveal more and more cases of wrongful sentencing. There are cases where the person condemned and executed was indeed guilty of murder, but glaring extenuating circumstances were such that the sentence of execution should never have been passed.

Thirdly, the argument that execution is a necessary deterrent to heinous crimes is not supported by empirical evidence. Changes in crime rates follow complex social laws but this much is clear: countries that abolish the death penalty do not experience a sudden rise in their murder rates, and over the long term these rates may register either an increase or a decrease.

Fourthly, it is held that the death penalty is necessary to give satisfaction to the family of the victim, as if vengeance should be satisfied with payment of a blood debt, as if the sad arithmetic of adding minus one to minus one sums to zero. Satisfaction and closure to help heal the sorrow are necessary. Justice must be done and a penalty imposed. A punishment that can and sometimes does lead to the reform of the culprit, leads, in the long run, to greater consolation for the bereaved.

The question of cost is raised; it is said that to execute a criminal is cheaper than to detain him indefinitely. Adolf Hitler followed the same reasoning in ordering the elimination of institutionalised defective children. Is there an economic measure for the value of a human life? When all the safeguards of right of appeal and the costs of “humane” execution are added up, continued detention may not be more expensive. If into the balance is thrown the benefit to society of the reformed criminal or, even more, the reprieved innocent, where does the economic argument stand?

The realisation has slowly dawned that we may not kill, even in retribution for those who killed others. The first to legislate this realisation was the State of Tuscany in 1786. Venezuela became the first modern state to reject the death penalty. Today more than half of the world’s nations have abolished capital punishment. The stance of countries with a liberal democratic regime is significant. We do not expect Iran or China to set standards for worldwide morality! The matter becomes clearer when we list the countries with the highest rates of execution:

Highest Rates of Execution in 2004

China: at least 5000
Iran: 197
Vietnam: at least 82
United States: 59
North Korea: scores
Saudi Arabia: at least 38
Pakistan: at least 29

How has it come about that the United States is listed among the most reactionary countries of the world when it comes to capital punishment? While the majority of countries have followed humanitarian ideals through to the abolition of capital punishment, the United States remains locked in an outlook of religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism. There is parity between the current adversaries, fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Americans.

The UN is the supreme voice of all nations on earth. In the Second Protocol to the Convention of Civil and Political Rights it proposes a solemn commitment: “Abolition of the death penalty contributes to enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights...all measures of abolition of the death penalty should be considered as progress in the enjoyment of the right of life.” The commitment must be total: “No one within the jurisdiction of a state party to the present protocol shall be executed.”

Many countries still believe that their country faces particular circumstances, which dictate that the law must be imposed with the ultimate sanction of death. For such countries, and Thailand is one of their number, there is an alternative. Apply a moratorium on executions, whether by decree or de facto, and see from what [happens] whether these fears were justified.

In Thailand, the last execution took place in December 2003. However, the number of people under sentence of death tripled to nearly 1000 last year, mostly on charges relating to drug trafficking. The United Nations Human Rights Commission is concerned about the issue of the death penalty in Thailand, asserting that offences related to drug trafficking are not included in the category of “most serious crimes” for which the imposition of the death penalty might be acceptable. The conditions of imprisonment were also criticised and an order was given – by virtue of a legal treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by Thailand – to “stop immediately” the shackling of prisoners condemned to death.

As noted above, in Thailand there have been no executions since December 2003. The Union for Civil Liberties proposes the extension of this apparent moratorium to a period of ten years, which would thereby accord Thailand the status of a de facto abolitionist country. One may hope that the outcome will allow our people to realise that another way is possible and become willing to accede to the Second Optional Protocol. Thailand already offers an example of a democratic way. The freedom of its people may be further enhanced by affirming an inviolable respect for life and abolishing the death penalty.

Danthong Breen
The Nation
Danthong Breen is president of the Union for Civil Liberty, Bangkok.

No comments: