Thursday, December 25, 2008

What Difference Does the Death Penalty Make?

In Thailand, we are assured by Government officials that the death penalty is necessary to deter serious crime. Mostly unaware of the change of thinking which has led to a majority UN vote of 106 to 46 in favour of a universal moritorium on Capital Punishment, they adhere to a US support of the practice. Thai executioners have even learned the barbarous skill of lethal injection from US instructors, arguing that the replacement of the awful death by injected poisons is more humane than that inflicted by machine gun fire.
It has long been proposed that the true deterrence to crime is not execution but the probability of arrest and prosecution. States that abolish the death penalty do not fall apart, crime rates do not rise chaotically. A persuasive study has become available of the effect of abolition of the death penalty in Hong Kong in 1994 on Homicide Rates as displayed in the above statistical graph. Clearly there is no noticeable rise in homicide rate at the vertical line which marks the year of abolition.

The study on which this and the following item are based, was introduced to a meeting of BagFree by visiting Professor David T. Johnson of the University of Hawaii, author of a forthcoming book on the death penalty in Asia (Oxford University Press)

Effects of Abolishing the Death Penalty II.

A Hardly Noticeable Difference

Singapore and Hong Kong are twin cities, comparable to each other in almost every way. While the population of Hong Kong is greater, population densities, population growth, levels of education, and per capita income are practically the same. However, Singapore believes that public security requires it to impose the death penalty at the highest rate in the world per million population. Hong Kong abolished the death penalty in 1994. The graph at the head of this post reveals that the death penalty has had no effect in reducing the rate of homicide in Singapore over that in Hong Kong, in the period since 1994. The knowledge that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent has lead the majority of the world's nations to abandon this barbarous practice. Perhaps the death penalty is retained by Singapore in support of a policy of social intimidation. At any rate it clings to a practice and mode of execution which it learned from its western colonial masters. Ironically, it now argues that abolition would be an imposition of western domination!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Execution of Bali Bombers

On the morning of the 8th November the three men found guilty of the Bali bombings were executed simultaneously in Indonesia.
Relatives of the victims have different reactions to the executions.
In a BBC interview, Australian Brian Deegan spoke of the execution of the murderers of his son Joshua. Brian is a barrister and former magistrate in Adelaide, Australia.

He said that his son's death had been an event beginning and now ending in violence.
"Capital punishment should be forbidden. It is wrong, illegal. It has no utilitarian purpose and is an abject failure as a deterrence. Only vengeance is served"

"The murderers should be punished by life imprisonment". In his opinion the three appeared to be simpletons who put on a show of bravery for display.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

What Buddhist monks really think about death penalty

On 7th October we held the final of a series of seminars with Buddhist monks in Chachongsao Province, Thailand, on the death penalty. The following are comments of the monks taken from feedback forms.

“Buddhism does not support the death penalty, but concerning the abolition of the death penalty there must be a fixed standard which creates confidence that crime and the transgression of the human rights of others will decrease and be eliminated from world society. However there is no teaching in Buddhism which concerns the existence or non-existence of the death penalty. The important point therefore is what is acceptable to society as a suitable punishment.”

“The matter of the death penalty is a complex issue, and every position on the matter has its limitations. From the point of view of society the death penalty appears necessary or there will be no fear of wrong doing.
From a Buddhist viewpoint the death penalty should be abolished and be replaced by life imprisonment. Those already sentenced would not be executed but their human rights are restricted. Imprisonment is a restriction of independence and its form should measure the seriousness of the crime. It is a retribution for the crime committed.”

“Can we deduce some standard from the use of capital punishment in the past. There must be a clearly defined penalty for the most serious crimes, such as life imprisonment or other punishment.
Executions should be abolished, they serve no purpose. It is better to give an opportunity (for reform).
In the event that the death penalty is maintained, the law is the law, punishment is punishment. It is better that the authorities concentrate on other issues; education, the reduction of violence, the environment, the economy.”

“This project is of great importance in promoting abolition of the death penalty; capital punishment is absolutely incapable of reducing crime. Instead ethics and moral standards should be improved.
I believe that the death penalty should be abolished, its effects are bad rather than good. The effect on relatives of the executed person is devastating, I cannot stop pitying them. I devote my life to teaching Buddhism to solve the problems, but it is a difficult task.
The maximum sentence should be life imprisonment.”

“Another seminar should be organized to give more information on this matter”

“The arguments we have heard and the various viewpoints are consistent, but opposed in some ways. However, I agree that there should not be a death penalty. But my viewpoint is that before the death penalty is abolished altogether its application should be restricted so that the importance of life be fully realised. I would not like to see the death penalty looked on as a small matter. Before a final abolition it should be discussed from many angles and at many levels. If possible the decision should be made at a world level.”

“Buddhism should play a leading role in defining the human condition”

“While it is true that Buddhism does not support the death penalty, the people too should have a role in upholding the law.
• Some monks have a different viewpoint to others. If there is no standard, each one will think that his own opinion is correct and that of others is wrong; thus confusion arises and people cause hurt to each other.
• The good should be encouraged for the good are often at a disadvantage. ‘Severe punishment for great crime, lesser punishment for smaller crime’
• ‘All living creatures live according to their fate’

“The matter of Buddhism and the death penalty is a matter of fate, fate due to past deeds, the present and the future. To solve the problem of the death penalty we must deal with fate. Buddhist monks teach of fate, whether good or bad. Good action can overcome bad fate, and the question of the death penalty no longer remains. This is my opinion following the teaching of Buddha. In this matter one cannot appeal to rights. If we cooperate together to teach morality and its practice to the people so that they act well, the matter of abuse of human rights will no longer be relevant.”

“If the death penalty is abandoned there must be some substitute action, especially study. Morality must be included in the syllabus. One may speak about it, but its implementation is something else and human rights are invoked. Monks and teachers wish to teach their students to be good but they fail as they do not have a suitable syllabus. In fact we have such a syllabus but we do not have the opportunity to follow it. We are under the control of others who use their power for their own benefit. If we come into conflict with such private interests we can do nothing. For example, I teach mathematics but when I wish to teach the matter of religious practice I must do so outside the school, or try to organize a special camp. When the children do not attend they cannot be faulted. If there is no provision in the curriculum to teach moral duties, how can it be done?”

“This has been a very good seminar because it deals with an important aspect of humanity. If there is an opportunity I would like to participate again. May I confirm that the Buddhist religion is against the death penalty.”

“The subject matter is good but it is not suitable for monks and their disciples as it is not part of the monastic code“

“Buddhism does not agree with the execution of people”

“Buddhism teaches forgiveness, not the killing of people. It is therefore against the death penalty”

“In Buddhist teaching the killing of a living creature is prohibited. The death penalty is therefore excluded from Buddhism. Seminars such as this one should be organized on a wide scale for ordinary people, for government officials, for politicians, and for those who write the laws.”

“The content of this seminar is good, and I wish well to the organizers. Those who support the seminar are also very good. I would like to see knowledge on this issue being widely proclaimed in society”

“The subject matter of the seminar is good. The monks and novices derived knowledge on attitudes throughout the world. But it will take time for the death penalty to be rejected by society, greater study and more information are required”

“Shackling is necessary but the death penalty should be abolished because even though the condemned person has committed crime, reform should be allowed to occur”

“One must distinguish between punishment and religion, because the world is full of evil people”

“Buddhism should be the national religion, and designated as such in the Constitution. The death penalty should be abolished as it is against religion”

“Religion and worldly matters should be separate”

“An important basis of religion is the prohibition on killing of any creature. Such killing is a sin, whether it is of an animal or a person. Buddhism therefore is against the death penalty”

“It would be better to organize such a seminar for those having political power rather than for monks”

“Religion teaches people to be good and the forgiveness of those who do evil. Thus there should not be a death penalty”

“Concerning abolition of the death penalty, I believe that it will take time to bring about understanding in every part of society regarding the importance of being merciful and of extending kindness”

“The holding of this seminar is good. It should be repeated in temples where there are monks and novices”

“I agree with abolition of the death penalty. It has no part in Buddhism”

“If the death penalty is to be abolished the issue must be studied further by the people”

“If the death penalty is abolished, what punishment will be substituted? If there is not an appropriate punishment people will not be deterred from doing evil.”

“It is necessary to shackle prisoners to stop them escaping. As for the death penalty, it is in contradiction to Buddhism. But whether it is abolished or not is a matter of the law”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

10th October 2008: World Day against Death Penalty

European Union
Delegation of the European Commission to Thailand

Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner calls for continued effort to achieve universal abolition of death penalty
10th October 2008

On the occasion of the World and European Day against the Death Penalty European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner said: "I am proud of the EU's leading role in the international efforts to abolish the death penalty. Although over half the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, the global figures for its use remain much too high. I fully recognize the plight of victims of violent crime, but the death penalty is not the solution. On the contrary, it only serves to aggravate a culture of violence and retribution. The Commission is determined to work towards the universal abolition of the death penalty through all available diplomatic channels and as a leading donor in this field.
A culmination of the EU's efforts, actively supported by states from all regions of the world, was the adoption of the resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty, by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2007.

EU encourages public debate, strengthening public opposition and putting pressure on retentionist countries to abolish the death penalty, or at least introduce a moratorium as a first step. The EU also acts against the death penalty in multilateral fora, such as the United Nations; a culmination of this effort was the resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18th December 2007. The EU's political commitment has been matched by substantial financial support for concrete projects, given that the death penalty is one of the priorities under the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR)
* 92 countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes
* 10 countries have abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes such as wartime crimes
* 35 countries can be considered abolitionist in practice. They retain the death penalty in law but have not carried out any executions for the past 10 years or more and are believed to have a policy or practice of not carrying out executions.
This makes a total of 137 countries which have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Since 2005, ten countries have abolished the death penalty.

However, figures of death penalty application around the world still remain high. During 2007, at least 1,252 people were executed in 24 countries, and at least 3,347 people were sentenced to death in 51 countries. 88 per cent of all known executions took place in five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the USA. The EU's action, as the worldwide leader on the fight against death penalty, remains urgent and necessary.

Under the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, more than 15 million euros have been allocated to support civil society projects since 1994, aimed at raising public awareness in retentionist countries through public education, outreach to influence public opinion, studies on how states' death penalty systems comply with international minimum standards, informing and supporting strategies for replacing the death penalty and efforts for securing the access of death row inmates to appropriate levels of legal support and training for lawyers.

For more information:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Revival of Death Penalty in Philippines?

Philippine House of Representatives House Bill 4882 is entitled, 'An Act Restoring the Death Penalty Repealing R.A. No. 9346 and for other purposes'. It was filed on 31st July by Congressman Representative Bienvenido M. Abante of the 6th District Manila. The Bill is currently under the Committee on the Revision of Laws.
Congressman Abante is a pastor of the Metropolitan Bible Baptist Church. Bill 4882 seeks to revoke the law that repealed the death penalty. If the Bill succeeds up to 1000 prisoners will again be on Death Row, awaiting execution.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Seminar on Religious Aspects of Death Penalty

Seminar in Office of National Human Rights Commission 15th, 16th July

This seminar was planned to be a presentation of the points of view expressed in the earlier seminars devoted to Buddhist and Muslim perspectives on the death penalty and to provide a forum for discussion on the relevance of these perspectives to abolition of the death penalty in Thailand. Noteworthy speakers from the earlier seminars were selected to summarise the various religious perspectives, to be followed by a general discussion of the consequences for the movement towards abolition in Thailand. The intended audience were the donor embassies of the project, influential religious leaders in the Bangkok region, representatives of the Government ministries and agencies relating to the death penalty, the media, NGO representatives, academics, and interested members of the public.

The seminar was graciously addressed by His Excellency Dr. Friedrich Hamburger, Ambassador of the European Union who emphasised the universal human interest of the topic and the aspect of human dignity even in the most conspicuous criminal. He recalled the attribution of capital punishment to a divine lawmaker in the beginning of history and the pivotal relegation of the matter to civil authority, except in the Muslim world, by the words of Christ, ‘Leave to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

He recalled the justification of Punishment under the headings of:

  1. Deterrence; 2. Rehabilitation; 3. Prevention of repeat offence.

In the case of Capital Punishment, 1. was ineffective, 2. was very limited, while 3. might be 100% effective.

However, application of the death penalty is always cruel and degrading. And it is degrading both to the person executed and to the executioner. The degradation extends to every participant in the process of execution, up to the highest level.

His Excellency asked, that given human fallibility, how many mistakes have been made in wrongful execution.

M. Pascal La Deunff, representative of the Embassy of France, also addressed the seminar, recalling that the death penalty had, in practice, been used to punish crimes but also to suppress dissent by minorities and the poor. He pointed to the significant contribution of Robert Badinter who as French Minister of Justice, promoted abolition of the death penalty in France in 1981 by affirming that the human passion to crime cannot be stopped by fear of the death penalty. While some of those condemned are entirely guilty, a system of justice without mistake is not possible. He recalled that the religious prohibition, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ found expression in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in Paris in 1948, ‘Everyone has the right to life’. But the perspective is different.

The Buddhist perspective on the death penalty was presented by the Reverend Phra W. Wesinmethi from Wat Suan Dork, Chiangmai.

He recalled that the mission of Buddhism is to promote happiness and peace among human beings. The Buddha taught that every living thing has a right to life, that even thinking of harming a living being is a mistake. In Buddhist thinking the source of evil is in harmful thought. Harmful thought leads to bad speech, and thence to bad action. Crime cannot be prevented by fear of death, but may be stopped by shame. It is otherwise impossible to stop harmful thought leading to crime. Killing cannot be approved, execution as a legal process is no different from illegal crime. The rejection of killing by Buddhism is uncompromising.

Related to this absolute rejection of capital punishment on Buddhist principles is the belief that any prisoner can change and reform. The often repeated story of the conversion of the killer Angulimala, enshrines the Buddhist teaching; the most notorious killer is capable of reform.

Buddhist belief results in a practical programme of reform to avoid killing:

  1. Develop the virtuous quotient of life, moral practice, fullness of mind, body and speech;
  2. Develop the professional quotient, the ability to earn a living; poverty can lead to a return to crime
  3. Develop the mental quotient, right thought, right speech, and right action
  4. Develop the intelligence quotient; delusion and not nature is the cause of evil.

The way of compassion consists in offering these four ways to the wrongdoer.

In summary, Buddhism combines a total prohibition on killing, which implies a rejection of the death penalty, with a programme of enlightenment which will lead the wrongdoer to reform.

Mr. Withaya Wisethrat, Muslim Centre of Thailand

Islam is not just a religion but a way of life for humanity. The whole human family is descended from Adam. Muslims are those who follow the way of Islam as preached by Mohammad. Islam takes form from the interior of man, extends to the family, the nation, the world. For the Islamic way of life to flourish there is need of regulation and security in society. Sharia is the system of law which is derived from belief. Muslim acceptance of the death penalty is based on the revealed word of Allah as recorded in the Koran which cannot be cancelled. The death penalty is mandated for premeditated homicide, for the adultery of a married person, for abandoning religion, and for spying in time of war. However, the requirements of evidence are strict, there must be four witnesses. Lack of intention can allow release of the prisoner and depends on the wisdom of the judge. Capital punishment is required to ensure the security of society.

But Islam also allows the intervention of mercy, relatives of an innocent victim may pardon the killer if he is truly repentant, and accept restitution and alternative punishment.

But the death penalty is only one part of Muslim law and in Thailand Muslims form a minority. They follow the laws of the State and would not protest if the death penalty were abolished. In fact there are many faults in the administration of Thai justice; the poor and the innocent are often victims. In such a situation it were better that the death penalty be abolished. The same argument was used by Buddhist speakers in a demand that Law accord with morality.

Further reflection on the state of Thai legal practice were presented by Mr. Tanadech Kantachote who graduated in law while imprisoned in Bang Kwang prison. He related cases he had known of wrongful conviction. In one example, police were ordered to make an arrest in a case involving a bomb attack against a police station in Haadyai. They arrested an innocent man who had helped rescue victims of the attack - Mr. Tanadech explained that in the Thai legal system the protestation of innocence of a poor and near illiterate villager is worth little in face of police assertion of guilt. Apart from the police witness there was no other evidence, but the accused was found guilty in the first court. However, the accused had been accompanied at the time of the bombing by his nine year old daughter. The Court of Appeal dismissed the case in the absence of real evidence, by refusing to accept that a person carrying a bomb would have brought with him a nine year old daughter.

Condemned persons are permanently shackled and sleep 20 persons together in a room measuring approximately 3 metres by 4 metres. Those executed are the most unfortunate with little access to legal representation.

He pointed out that the argument favouring the death penalty as a preventive against repeating a crime ignores the fact that repetition of crime occurs in such minor crimes as small robberies, but very rarely in cases of serious crime.

In the current series, no seminar was conducted on the Christian attitude to the death penalty but it was appropriate to include consideration of such an aspect in this seminar devoted to comparison of religious aspects. The speaker was Ms. Sylvie Bukhari de Pontual

President of the International Federation of

Catholic Action for penalty (FIACT)

Ms. Sylvie related the long road followed by Christian believers to a present majority support for abolition. The Christian religion is unique in having a founder who was arrested, accused, tortured, condemned to death, and executed. By reaction, early Christians were for four centuries totally opposed to the death penalty. Finally, as Christians achieved acceptance in the State of Rome they accepted the death penalty in Roman legislation, recognizing the Old Testament approval of capital punishment. It was only in the 13th century that the first voice was raised against capital punishment by a Christian sect, which recalled the words of Jesus Christ, ‘I do not want the death of a sinner…’. The outstanding theologian Thomas Aquinas favoured the death penalty for the protection of society. Rejection to the death penalty grew, and was voiced in the 17th century by George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement, ‘Life is blessed by God’. In the 18th century Caesare Baccaria published an influential work on the concept of punishment, where he stated that the certainty of punishment, not the death penalty, was an effective deterrent.

From that time, beginning with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1786, states began to abolish the death penalty. Today, apart from some evangelical churches who take inspiration from the Old Testament, such as the Southern Baptists in the US, almost all Christians oppose the death penalty. The World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church have made the strongest declarations against Capital Punishment. The clearest statement was made by Cardinal Martino in a speech to the UN General Assembly in 1999, ‘The right to life is a right of a human being’. In Christian thinking moral education and good policing must support legal abolition of the death penalty.

The long history of the growth of Christian opposition to the death penalty illustrates the immense task involved in changing human perception and the need for great patience in its achievement.

Further accounts of Buddhist and Muslim perspectives were offered which will be included in the detailed publication of the contents of this seminar.

Another highlight of the seminar was the talk by M. Michel Forst on International Law relating to the death penalty and the recent vote on a Moratorium in the UNGA. His theme was that the death penalty is a breach of international human rights. He linked the increase in the number of countries choosing abolition, to the development of human rights in the 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 60 years ago eight countries had abolished the death penalty, while today 133 countries have done so.

There are two fundamental human rights involved, the right to life, and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. The death penalty is a premeditated killing of a prisoner for the purpose of punishment. As such it is the ultimate denial of the dignity and worth of the human person. Such is the human rights case against the death penalty.

Michel Forst traced the development of human rights standards on the death penalty through a progressive restricting of the number of offences for which the penalty might be imposed. A definitive ruling is given in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ‘sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes’. Further clarification has narrowed this limitation to premeditated homicide. ‘Economic crimes and drug-related offences’ cannot be considered as being ‘most serious crimes’. It is significant that in the Statute of the Treaty of Rome the death penalty is not provided for what are arguably the most heinous crimes of all – genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Regarding the process of abolition, the speaker pointed out that the decision to abolish the death penalty has to be taken by the government and the legislators. This decision does not depend on a majority of the public being in favour of abolition. Nevertheless, statements from religious leaders and other respected public figures can create a moral climate in which legislators may dare to act without the support of majority opinion. The international dimension allows countries to learn from other countries experience.

The majority vote by the United Nations General Assembly on 18th December of last year in favour of a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty carries considerable moral and political weight. It places an obligation on all member states to review their use of the death penalty and is an incentive to work towards abolition.

The final programme of the seminar was a discussion of the status of the movement to abolition in Thailand. It was agreed that the defective state of the Thai justice system is both a strong argument in favour of abolition, but also reason to doubt the effectiveness of life sentencing which would replace the death sentence. Both Buddhists and Muslims agreed on the need for a moral renewal in society as basis for a more just legal system.

It appears that there is massive support for the death penalty, in the belief that it is an effective deterrent of serious crime. Up to 84% of Bangkokians favour capital punishment and more than 80% of Buddhist monks. The foundations of the majority opinion appear to be an unfounded acceptance of capital punishment as an effective deterrent, a culture of authoritarianism, an expectation of vengeance, and little appreciation of mercy and forgiveness.

Steps towards abolition are the effort to limit the application of the death penalty; at present 47 different kinds of crime can incur capital punishment. Life imprisonment must be seen to be real and the problem of violence in society must be tackled. The religious aspect explored in the present seminars has an important role in helping change.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Stoning in Iran - 9 Adulterers to die

On 12th July UCL held a one day seminar with Muslim scholars and people in Bangkok on Muslim perspectives on the death penalty. The stringent requirements for four witnesses and a just process were emphasized as necessary elements in a Muslim system of justice. However, the practice in Iran today is very different. It is reported that 9 adulterers are due to be stoned at any time. The case is carried by several news agencies. The following is a report in the UK Telegraph.

"Shadi Sadr, a lawyer and women's rights activist, said the nine were convicted of adultery in separate cases in different Iranian cities.

"Their verdicts are approved, and they may be executed at any time," she said, adding that trial protocol was not applied properly in the cases.

Six of the nine were convicted based solely on judges' decisions with no witnesses or the presence of their lawyers during their confessions, she said.

Most of the nine come from areas of Iran that have low rates of literacy and some did not understand the cases against them, she said. One had pleaded guilty to adultery even though she did not know the meaning of the charge.

The nine are between 27 and 50 years old, among them a male music teacher who was convicted of adultery for having an affair with one of his students, the activists said.

"We are trying to stop the implementation of their verdicts. And secondly, we want to amend the country's penal law, in which death by stoning is prescribed," she said.

Under Iran's Islamic laws, adultery in the only capital offence punishable by stoning. Other capital offences in Iran include murder, rape, armed robbery, apostasy, blasphemy, drug trafficking, prostitution, treason and espionage.

The punishment is also applied in some other countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Nigeria.

A man is usually buried up to his waist, while a woman is buried up to her neck. Those carrying out the verdict then throw stones until the condemned dies.

Stoning was widely imposed in the early years after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. But in recent years, it has seldom been applied, though the government rarely confirms when it carries out stoning sentences. The last stoning death confirmed by the government was in July last year."

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Muslim Perspectives on the Death Penalty

On Saturday 12th July 30 participants gathered in a seminar held in the Foundation of Islamic Centre of Thailand to discuss Muslim Perspectives on the Death Penalty. The position of Thai Muslims can be summarised in the statement of a Thai Muslim lawyer:
"Muslims cannot abandon the death penalty"
While this may appear to be an uncompromising stand there were interesting aspects to the seminar. Pairoj Pholphet, secretary general of UCL remarked that the occasion was unique, it being most unusual for Thais to exchange beliefs. There were expressions which suggest approaches to further discussion on the issue.
"Islam belongs to everybody, not just to Muslims"
"Punishment is between humans, not between God and man"
" There is a traditional belief that if punishment is evaded in this life, then it will come in the next"
"On the value of a moral act: A prostitute who gives water to drink to a dog may thereby earn heaven"

To Moslems the imported legal systems of the west found in most countries are not their affair, although such laws must be obeyed. They look to the establishment of a sharia system of law. Capitalism is a religion with its own morality where consumption and exploitation of others are part of an accepted moral code.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Second Seminar on Buddhist Perspectives on Death Penalty

Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University Ubon Ratchathani

On 7th July, UCL organized the second of a series of seminars on religious aspects of the death penalty. The seminar took place in Wat Mahasawatnakphutaram of Ubon Ratchathani. 80 monks from throughout the province attended the one day seminar.

The topic was novel to most of the monks. Some were strongly in favour of abolition, others believed that the death penalty was karma due to bad actions; a middle group believed that a reform of society on Buddhist principles would make the death penalty superfluous. But all welcomed the opportunity to hear new viewpoints and discuss various aspects.

In summary, these monks subscribe to a basic Buddhist ethic. Good comes to those who do good, evil to those who do evil. If people listen to the teaching of the Buddha and follow the five basic precepts all evil will be eliminated from society. If not, they deserve their fate, including the death penalty. Nevertheless, compassion for oneself and others must be the basis of individual behaviour. There are unresolved issues in renouncing responsibility for the actions of government and society.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Thai Buddhist Perspective on the Death Penalty

On Monday 30th June the first of a series of seminars on religious perspectives on the death penalty was held in Wat Suan Dok, a campus of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, Chiangmai. 34 monks participated and several civilians. There follows a summary of the discussions.

  1. All speakers recognized that capital punishment contravened the basic Buddhist prohibition against killing, ‘even of a mosquito’ in the words of one speaker.

“The death penalty is a concept that humans have created”

“If we wish to promote Buddhism, and are Buddhists, we should abolish the death penalty to follow the Buddha.”

  1. The punishment of criminal offences is considered the responsibility of civil authorities, and therefore ‘political’. As political matters were considered to be strictly outside the sphere of interest of Buddhist monks, the issue of the death penalty was avoided. One speaker recalled an old prohibition by which a monk could not walk in an area where executions were carried out but must detour to avoid any incursion into such a civic location. This attitude throws light on the apparent indifference of Thai monks to the death penalty which is so at variance with their beliefs. (There also appeared little sympathy among Thai monks for the ‘political’ involvement of their compatriots in Burma. A prominent Vietnamese monk remarked to me once his incomprehension of the lack of involvement of Thai monks in social issues. The interest of the speakers at the seminar in the death penalty may be a relic of a now forgotten militancy of monks in the northern region)
  2. However, Buddhism places a high value on repentance and reform of life. Pivotal to this attitude is the lesson conveyed in the story of Angulimala, the criminal who had killed 999 people before attempting to kill his own mother and the Buddha. Under the influence of the Buddha, Angulimala repented, changed his life and entered the monkhood. The peaceful outcome of the story is heightened by contrasting the reform of the robber murderer due to the Buddha’s teaching in contrast to the failed attempt of the king and his soldiers to eliminate him by force.
  3. Buddhism does not see the death penalty as an isolated issue but rather as a failure to resolve problems in the whole of society. If peace and harmony were established in society, capital crimes would no longer be committed, and the death penalty would no longer be an issue. Abolition of the death penalty must be accompanied by a vast effort to reform society.
  4. The monks were very conscious of the immense deficiencies in the Thai legal system, such as in the absence of an investigation into the deaths of human rights defenders (including a famous Chiang Mai activist monk), wrongful convictions, execution of innocent people.
  5. Religion aims to promote a society where people can grow, be good, ‘making people live, not die'.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Abolition in Pakistan

In a remarkable move, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is calling for commutation of the death penalty to a life sentence for the 7000 prisoners condemned to death. The cancellation of the death sentences is proclaimed to be a tribute to Benazir Bhutto who died in a bombing and shooting attack last December. The move vindicates, in fitting fashion, her vision of Islam in the modern world, setting 'a standard of peace, prosperity, equality, and reconciliation'.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Drug crimes not subject to death penalty

The above photograph was taken recently at the entrance to a toilet in a Bangkok petrol station. It warns that drugs entail the death penalty and originates from legislation on the control of drugs.

We submit the following comments:
As contained in the UN Economic and Social Council resolution of 1984/50 of 25 May 1984
  • "the deprivation of life by the authorities of the State is a matter of the utmost gravity" par 51.
  • "To determine whether a particular offence falls among the most serious crimes,..., requires interpretation and application of the relevant international law rather than of the subjective approach opted for within a given State's criminal code and sentencing scheme" par 44.
  • "With respect to particular offenses, the Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Committee have determined that a wide range of specific offences fall outside the scope of the "most serious crimes" for which the death penalty may be imposed. These include: ...., drug related offences, ..." par 51
  • "the Committee and the Commission have rejected nearly every imaginable category of offence other than murder as falling outside the ambit of the most setious crimes" par 52
  • "the death penalty can only be imposed in cases where it can be shown that there was an intention to kill which resulted in the loss of life" Summary 3
These rulings were recalled to the 29 member Thai delegation submitting a report on its obligations under the INTERNATIONAL COVENANT ON CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS during the 84th Session of Human Rights Committee, in Geneva in July 2005

In the United Nations General Assemly of December 2007 a majority vote recommended a Moratorium on the Death Penalty in all member countries. Thailand voted with the minority against the Moratorium.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Muslim Perspective on Death Penalty

On 12th July, UCL will hold a seminar in Bangkok on Thai Muslim perspectives on the death penalty. In May 2008 members of Arab civil society met in Alexandria to debate the UN proposed Moratorium on the Death Penalty, accepted by majority vote in the UN General Assembly in December 2007. The meeting resulted in the following highly significant declaration:

Alexandria Declaration

Calling upon the Arab Countries to Implement the UN Resolution 62/149 on the Establishment of a Moratorium on the Death Penalty

1. We, the representatives of the Arab civil society and the Arab coalitions challenging the death penalty, have met in Alexandria, the Arab Republic of Egypt, from 12 to 14 May 2008 at the kind invitation of the Swedish Institute in Alexandria and in partnership with Penal Reform International [PRI], in corporation with Amman Centre for Human Rights Studies [ACHRS] and MAAT Centre for Lawyers and Constitutional Studies, with the participation of representatives from the Cairo EC delegation, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Arab League and Amnesty International, for discussion and consultation on the implementation of the United Nations Recommendation 62/149 of 23 December 2007 concerning the establishment of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty;

2. Convinced that the death penalty is a violation of the most fundamental human right, i.e. the right to life; and that it did not succeed in any country in deterring criminality or in preventing it;

3. Believe that the death penalty amounts to torture and is a cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. It contravenes the principle that consecrates the sanctity of human life. Life is God given and he alone could take it back.

4. Note with regret that the Arab judicial systems are abusively using the death penalty at the time most countries are abandoning it.

5. Recall that the tolerant Islamic Sharia’a has prescribed the death penalty as a deterrent, but sought to restrict the scope of its application to a very limited number of cases and by imposing strict conditions related to the infallibility of the witnesses, the absolute fairness of the judges and even then left room for possible forgiveness and reconciliation. In practice, this amounts to an effective establishment of a moratorium on the death penalty in Islam.

6. Underline that such a penalty is being used in Arab positive laws extensively going far more than what the Sharia’a sought to impose.

7. Note with concern that the Arab legislations prescribing death penalty are ambiguous and leave room for wide interpretation in the categorization of acts punishable by death, such as organized crime, terrorism, treat to state security and other crimes of political nature.

8. Remind that most of the legal and judicial systems in the Arab World are undergoing reforms, implicitly acknowledging some of their intrinsic disfunctionality. Such an imperfect justice system should not be empowered to apply death penalty.

9. Considering that the Arab world is part of the international community and since Arab countries have participated in the discussion and adoption of the United Nations resolution 62/149, we call upon all Arab States to respect the said resolution and establish a moratorium on the death penalty.

10. Request the Arab governments, each according to its own circumstances, to fully comply with the United Nations resolution 62/149 by:

  • “(a) Respect[ing] international standards that provide safeguards guaranteeing the protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, in particular the minimum standards, as set out in the annex to Economic and Social Council resolution 1984/50 of 25 May 1984;
  • (b) Provide[ing] the Secretary-General with information relating to the use of capital punishment and the observance of the safeguards guaranteeing the protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty;
  • (c) Progressively restrict[ing] the use of the death penalty and reduce[ing] the number of offences for which it may be imposed;
  • (d) Establish[ing] a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty”.

11. Appeal to the Arab judges to comply, in the exercise of their profession, with the international standards of fair trial, to refrain from the use of the death penalty and to use alternative punishments instead.

12. Urge the member states of the Arab League to consider amending article 7 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights in order to eliminate any possibility of applying the death penalty to the under 18 of age.

13. Furthermore, appeal to the Arab states which have observed a de facto moratorium to remove this punishment from their legislation in order to prevent its circumstantial use.

14. Also appeal to the Arab journalists and human rights activists to fully play their role in the awareness raising and combat bad customs and practices such as revenge, violence in all its forms, and the dissemination of human rights culture, particularly the right to life.

15. Emphasize the need for the civil society to continue intensifying its activities to convince the public that narrowing and eventually abolishing the death penalty serves the ambition of the Arab masses in fulfilling their aspiration to justice and human rights.

Alexandria, 14 May 2008

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

With the objective of enlisting religious leaders in the movement for abolition of the death penalty in Thailand, UCL, with the cooperation of the National Human Rights Commission, is organizing a set of seminars throughout the country. The seminars are sponsored by the European Union Commission, the Embassy of the Netherlands, and the Embassy of France.

Time Table of Seminars: June – July

Seminar 1 Buddhism and the Death Penalty

Date: Postponed

Location: Central Thailand

Seminar 2 Buddhism and the Death Penalty

Date: 30th June 2008

Location: Mahachulalonghorn University

(Wat Suan Dok)


Seminar 3 Buddhism and the Death Penalty

Date: 7th July 2008

Location: MahachulalonghornUniversity

(Wat Mahawanaram)


Seminar 4 Islam and the Death Penalty

Date: 12th July 2008

Location: Islamic Centre of Thailand, Bangkok

Seminar 5 Religion and the Death Penalty

Date: 15th July 2008

Location: Office of National Human Rights Commission


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Is this the model which Thailand follows?

In Thailand, the charge is often heard that opposition to the death penalty is an imposition of 'western' values. In fact Thailand has learned the trade of lethal injection from the US and points to the US as justification for Thai practice. One may ask whether the following is the model which Thailand follows:

The release of the third death row inmate in six months in North Carolina last week is raising fresh questions about whether states are supplying capital-murder defendants with adequate counsel, even as an execution on Tuesday night in Georgia ended a seven-month national suspension.

In all three cases, North Carolina appeals courts found that evidence that would have favored the defendants was withheld from defense lawyers by prosecutors or investigators. In two of the cases, including that of Levon Jones, who was released on Friday after 14 years on death row, the courts said the defendants’ lawyers had failed to mount an adequate defense. Nationwide, Mr. Jones’s release was the sixth in a year.

John Holdridge, director of the A.C.L.U. Capital Punishment Project, which provided representation for Mr. Jones, said the successful appeals showed that the problem with the death penalty was not the method of execution — the issue ruled on by the Supreme Court last month — but instead “poor people getting lousy lawyers.”

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Bang Kwang Prison - one of the worst in world

Bang Kwang Prison where most prisoners condemned to death in Thailand are held has been listed by TIMESONLINE as one of the 10 worst prisons in the world, with the following citation:

Bangkwang jail, Thailand
Tempted to take a little marijuana on your fortnight package tour of Thailand? It may be unwise unless you want to end up in the infamous "Bangkok Hilton".
In recent years the prison's population has trebled to 7,000 and the guards are outnumbered 50-1. Every inmate there is serving more than 25 years and for the first three months of their sentence each is forced to wear leg irons.
Inside Building 10, prisoners are held in solitary confinement in pitch black cells two metres square wearing "elephant chains" for months on end.
"Thai prisons are tough." says Director of Prisons Khun Nattee in a superfluous warning to tourists. "You don't want to be in Bangkwang."

In recent days UCL was involved in helping poor Muslims from the South of Thailand pay a once a year visit to their, husbands, sons, fathers. It was a trying procedure, perhaps not maliciously difficult but, given the overcrowding and lack of personnel, an absolutely unacceptable treatment of men condemned to death.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Death Penalty from a Religious Viewpoint

In the most recent report on the death penalty issued by Amnesty International, the number of executions world wide in 2007 are reported to be a minimum of 1252 persons. Amnesty further reports that ‘Many government claim that executions take place with public support’. Such is the attitude of Thai government officials, many of whom profess to personally be in favour of abolition of the death penalty.

In this context it is our belief that the reported public approval of the death penalty must be questioned. Acceptance of the death penalty among the general population appears to rest on an unawareness of the rejection of the death penalty by the majority of nations in the world, the failure of the death penalty to reduce serious crime, and, above all, by a lack of moral leadership to make known ethical arguments against it.

Religious figures in Thailand largely share the perceptions of the general population in favour of the death penalty. They are not conscious that application of the death penalty conflicts with the most basic religious beliefs of Thailand’s main religious groups. In undertaking a campaign to inform religious opinion in Thailand we submit the following article.

Death Penalty and Religion

"The movement to abolish the death penalty needs the religious community because the heart of religion is about compassion, human rights, and the indivisible dignity of each human person made in the image of God." Helen Prejean

Thailand is a Buddhist country

Buddhism abhors the death of any living creature

Thailand adheres to the death penalty

The logic is faulty, but that is often the way of religions and the practice that one might expect to follow from them. Even Buddhist monks admit that they have not been conscious of the contradiction between belief and practice with regard to the penalty of death. Others resort to a version of the argument that ‘to kill a fish is a sin, but to serve fish to a monk is a greater good’. They argue that while the death penalty is wrong, the condemned criminal is burdened with karma and it is a good deed to release him from this life to be born again with a renewed opportunity to progress to nirvana.

The connection between a religious viewpoint and acceptance of the death penalty is a complex issue. Religions based on a written inspiration which is believed to be the revealed word of God, such as the Bible and the Koran, specifically enjoin the death penalty. But a reflection of the basic truths contained in their religious message can lead to an opposite conclusion. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is unequivocal and has found its positive expression in that modern epitome of man’s relationship with other men, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘Everyone has the right to life’. In this case we know the mind of those who formulated the guiding words, it was intended to make way for a total abolition of the death penalty.

1. The death penalty in religious writings and traditions.

The Hindu religion and its derivatives is the oldest religion which has a written record of beliefs. One of the core beliefs involves the concept of Ahimsa from which all other virtues emanate.

Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term meaning non-violence (literally: the avoidance of violence - himsa). Ahimsa is a rule of conduct centered in the avoidance of harm in thoughts as well as actions, and bars the killing or injuring of living beings. It is closely connected with the notion that all kinds of violence, mental or physical, entail negative karmic consequences.

The extent to which the principle of non-violence can or should be applied to different life forms is controversial between various authorities, movements and currents within the ancient religions and has been a matter of debate for thousands of years. It is an important tenet of the religions that originated in ancient India (Hinduism, Buddhism and especially Jainism)

Hindu scriptures and law books support the use of violence in self-defence against an armed attacker. They make it clear that criminals are not protected by the rule of ahimsa. They have no misgivings about the death penalty; their position is that evil-doers who deserve death should be killed, and that a king in particular is obliged to punish criminals and should not hesitate to kill them, even if they happen to be his own brothers and sons.

An example enjoining the death penalty may be found in The Manu Smrti, the most authoritative Hindu law-book:

` When a woman, proud of her relations [or abilities] deceives her husband (with another man ), then the king should [ensure that] she be torn apart by dogs in a place much frequented by people ' [Manu Smrti 8:371] ` And the evil man should be burnt in a bed of red-hot iron ' [Manu Smrti 8:371-2]

In Jainism the understanding and implementation of ahimsa is more radical, scrupulous, and comprehensive than in any other religion. Non-violence is seen as the most essential religious duty for everyone (ahisā paramo dharma, a statement often inscribed on Jain temples) On the other hand, Jains agree with Hindus that violence in self-defence can be justified and that a soldier who kills enemies in combat is performing a legitimate duty. Jain communities accepted the use of military power for their defence, and there were Jain monarchs, military commanders, and soldiers.

In the Jewish Christian Bible, capital punishment is prescribed: ‘For your life-blood I will demand satisfaction…. He that sheds the blood of a man, for that man his blood shall be shed’ Genesis 9, 5-6. However, there is a counter tradition in an earlier text referring to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, both children of the first parents, Adam and Eve. Accused by God of his crime, Cain complains of his fate, “‘I shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on earth, and anyone who meets me can kill me’. The Lord answered him, ‘No: if anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold’. So the Lord put a mark on Cain, in order that anyone meeting him should not kill him.’

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, crimes incurring the death penalty are multiplied, especially for religious and sexual crimes. The Christian section of the Bible, or the New Testament, does not specifically treat of the death penalty other than by implication when Jesus is reported to have confirmed earlier laws; ‘As long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a stroke, will disappear from the Law’ Matt. 5.18

Islam and Buddhism being the major religions of Thailand will be treated separately in detail. In summary, the Koran prescribes the death penalty for murder under certain conditions, especially a requirement for the evidence of witnesses. But it also teaches that God prefers forgiveness. Unlike the Vedic religion, ancient Buddhism had strong misgivings about violent ways of punishing criminals and about war. Both were not explicitly condemned, but peaceful ways of conflict resolution and punishment with the least amount of injury were encouraged. It is recorded that the kings of several Buddhist kingdoms in India abolished capital punishment as did the previous Dalai Lama about the year 1920. (The present booklet includes a support for the recent UN Moratorium by the current Dalai Lama). A story related about the conversion of a notorious robber killer by the Buddha emphasizes the possibility of a rehabilitation which

excludes the death penalty.

An important attitude to the death penalty is contained in traditional African tribal law. While not specifically a religious teaching it forms part of traditional culture which is inspired by reverence for ancestors and the supernatural. Typical of this approach is the concept of unhu as practiced in Zimbabwe: "Unhu" embodies all the invaluable virtues that society strives for towards maintaining harmony and the spirit of sharing among its members:

Unhu constitutes the kernel of African Traditional Jurisprudence as well as leadership and governance. In the concept of unhu, crimes committed by one individual on another extend far beyond the two individuals and have far-reaching implications to the people among whom the perpetrator of the crime comes from. Unhu jurisprudence tends to support remedies and punishments that tend to bring people together. For instance, a crime of murder would lead to the creation of a bond of marriage between the victim's family and the accused's family in addition to the perpetrator being punished both inside and outside his social circles. The role of "tertiary perpetrator" to the murder crime is extended to the family and the society to which the individual perpetrator belongs. The punishment of the tertiary perpetrator is a huge fine and a social stigma, which they must shake off after many years of demonstrating "unhu”. A leader who has "unhu" is selfless and consults widely and listens to his subjects. He or she does not adopt a lifestyle that is different from his subjects and lives among his subjects and shares what he owns. A leader who has "unhu" does not lead but allows the people to lead themselves and cannot impose his will on his people, which is incompatible with "unhu". The modern concept of rehabilitative justice is inspired by such practices of traditional justice

2. Practice of the Death Penalty

While Jesus spoke in favour of preserving the Mosaic Law, his practice was otherwise. An incident is related when religious teachers brought before him as a test case a woman caught committing adultery: ‘Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In the Law Moses has laid down such women are to be stoned. What do you say about it?’ Jesus replied, ‘That one of you who is faultless shall throw the first stone.’ One by one they went away. When all had left, Jesus turned to the woman and asked, ‘Where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She answered, ‘No one, sir.’ Jesus said, ‘Nor do I condemn you. You may go; do not sin again.’

A remarkably similar story is told of Mohammad. A woman came to the Prophet to confess her adultery. The Prophet asked if there were witnesses, but there were none. She insisted that her confession be received, but the Prophet insisted that she return four times in order for her reiterated confessions to be equivalent to the four eyewitnesses required for condemnation. When she did that, he still insisted that she corroborate her confession with external evidence. She then confessed to being pregnant. The Prophet, clearly wanting to avoid applying the penalty, deferred it until she gave birth, because otherwise the penalty would affect her unborn child. Eight months later, she returned, but the Prophet again refused to apply the penalty because she had to breastfeed the child, and he asked her to return nine months later. When she returned, he asked her if she wanted to recant her confession, but she confirmed it. He then felt that he had no choice but to order the penalty carried out. When his companions returned from the stoning, he asked them if they had heard her recant. They asked why and he said that, if she had, they should have stopped the stoning. There are other versions of this strange story but the underlying intent, for all the unhappy outcome, remains to show a wish to divert the punishment for lack of witness or for the repentance of the woman.

But the ensuing history of religions relates the sad history of thousands of years of infliction of the death penalty, and in earlier times with horrific brutality. Part of the motive was vindictiveness, and anger against the criminal and the desire to make him suffer as he had made others suffered. Those issuing the condemnation claimed that their anger was justified by the anger of God. It is said, indeed, that the so called law of the talion, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth was intended to mitigate vengeance and to set a measure to its ferocity. At times, punishment was considered a first installment of the punishment which God himself would inflict in the next life. At other times, there was expressed the pious hope that punishment inflicted in this life would allow the evildoer to repent and escape eternal punishment in the next Clearly too, there was the employment of capital punishment as a deterrent, emphasized by the public display of severed heads on spikes and allowing hanged bodies to remain suspended in public view. The public burning of heretics was another terrible warning to others. We can understand the resource to capital punishment in societies which did not have the means to securely imprison the guilty for a long period, and the need in an unstable society to meet immediate crime with immediate punishment. There was also a feeling that the presence of a murderer in a society would bring down the anger of God on a community. The complicity of religion in administering the death penalty is shown most clearly in the life of ‘Mastro Titta’, the executioner of the Papal Vatican State between 1796 and 1865. At the age of 85 he carried out the last of 516 executions he had performed throughout his life, always with great ceremony and display.

3. Rejection of the Death Penalty

But gradually over the centuries the wonder of mercy came to be recognized:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It is enthroned in the heart of kings;

It is an attribute of God himself,

And earthly powers doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice.

(Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)

The abolition of capital punishment from legal codes may be traced to the work of Cesare Beccaria (1738 – 1794) an Italian criminologist and economist. In 1764 he published ‘On Crime and Punishment’ a work on criminal justice which is still relevant today. He pointed out that the certainty of punishment was more effective in deterring crime than its severity. Criticising the use of torture and secret courts in legal procedures he rejected capital punishment. The motivation of his work was a more profound understanding of humanity rather than any religious principle. Influenced by his writing the Duchy of Tuscany became the first State to ban the death penalty in 1786. Venezuela and Portugal became the first modern states to do so in 1867. Today, whether in law or in practice, 149 states have abandoned the death penalty; it is retained by 49 states. The most recent country to declare against the death penalty is Uzbekistan in January, 2008.

Although religions were not the direct source of motivation in rejecting the death penalty they have come to realize that the death penalty is incompatible with the most profound principles of religion. Beginning in the last half of the 20th century, increasing numbers of religious leaders—particularly within Judaism and Roman Catholicism—campaigned against it. Capital punishment was abolished by the state of Israel for all offenses except treason and crimes against humanity, and Pope John Paul II condemned it as “cruel and unnecessary.” As religions have become dissociated from state power, they have turned to a more personal role and answer to the personal longings of individuals. Persons with religious convictions interact with those condemned to death and realize more clearly that the punishment of death is not a solution to crime but itself an added crime. The option of long imprisonment has allowed time to reverse misjudgments of guilt which previously resulted in the deaths of the innocent. Time has shown too that those condemned can come to regret their crimes, to ask for forgiveness from those who were injured, and to reform their lives. This is a process known and appreciated in all religions.

All personal religions acknowledge that God is merciful, surely even more merciful than man. Buddhists realize that all life is sacred, that there can be no exceptions. By identifying the underlying basis of belief in religion we submit that it is part of the religious perspective to reject the death penalty. Religions must find their place in a secular world and it is heartening that an agreement about the most basic right of all, the right to life, can be a value shared by both religious people and those who do not own allegiance to any religion. It will contribute to peace in the world, that all respect the lives of each other and will never demand the penalty of the death of another, whether in time of peace or in time of war, or for any reason whatsoever. And in token of this determination we welcome the support of all religions in urging our country to ratify the 2nd Protocol to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights which makes explicit the full meaning of the entitlement to life established in the law of nations.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Moratorium on Death Penalty: Thailand

UN Resolution for a Moratorium on the Death Penalty

The UN in full session is like a huge oil tanker, ploughing through high seas and storms, only slowly adapting its great momentum to change course. Such a momentous change was the adoption of a resolution on 18th December last to suspend the death penalty world wide. The UN General Assembly was born out of the terrible experience of two world wars, the slaughter of millions, and the questioning of what had been thought to be a state of civilisation. Sixty years ago the UN proclaimed what we would now call a road map, ‘the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ a document of great simplicity but immense compass. Over those sixty years there has been some progress in achieving its aim of freedom and security, although progress in one area or place is often accompanied by regression elsewhere; war, famine, disease, senseless killing and cruelty remain the still, sad music of humanity.

But there has been progress in achieving the most fundamental of all its promises. The passing of a resolution on a moratorium on the death penalty, acknowledges that the words ‘Everyone has the right to life’ in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration, is now an achievable goal. Yet, the resolution limits itself to an expression of ‘deep concern’, asking that the death penalty be progressively restricted and the number of offences for which it may be imposed reduced. Such language of compromise and persuasion prevails, but the original strong mind of the Universal Declaration also rings out, ‘Establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty’. It is known that the formulation ‘Everyone has a right to life’ were the most contested words of the Declaration. While some wished to extend the words to outright prohibition of the death penalty, others wanted the legitimacy of the death penalty to be explicitly sustained. What we inherit is an incomplete phrase, whose meaning the resolution of 18th December has now further revealed.

Twice before, such a motion was introduced to the UN, but failed to reach a vote in the General Assembly. On this occasion, despite strong opposition, the motion advanced and the final vote tallied a majority of 104 votes in favour, 54 against, and 29 abstentions. The most heartening aspect of the vote was that 20 states that still have the death penalty voted in favour of the resolution. The stand of those opposing the motion is revealing. The US, the major ideological purveyor of the death penalty in the world, was uncharacteristically silent in the debate. This is probably due to signs of a coming ground change on the issue in the US where the legality of lethal injection is being strongly contested. It is also being realised that the cost of execution and adequate legal defence is more expensive than life imprisonment. China too, the major executioner in the world, was unwilling to engage in the debate and expose its legal system to public censure. The most virulent opposition to the resolution came from that world champion of human rights, Singapore, which asserted its right to execute whom it wishes, denying others the right to comment on its internal affairs. Strangely, this mini state which aspires to participate in every western economic, industrial, banking, and cultural practice, objects to the imposition of western standards supporting abolition of the death penalty. One may ask whether from the Singapore viewpoint the UN itself is too ‘western’ an institution. And if it is, does that make the right to life less valid?

The part played by Thailand in the debate was also inglorious. In a speech expressing opposition to the Resolution the Thai delegate echoed the language of Singapore, affirming the necessity of the death penalty as a deterrent. But also, when questioned by Italian sponsors of the Resolution he responded in words which reflect shamefully on this Buddhist Kingdom, saying that “the Thai Constitution has not been changed and still called for the death penalty, that some lives were not worth keeping and should be executed”. Meanwhile the Thai population is largely uninformed about world opinion regarding the death penalty and accepts the model of practice in the US, where a Thai team learned the craft of lethal injection. It is time for moral leadership from civil, political, and religious leaders to follow the recommendation of the United Nations General Assembly to accept a moratorium on executions, and to enter into an examination of a barbaric practice which is surely destined to vanish from the earth. The majority of the world’s nations have concluded that the death penalty is not a deterrent to serious crime, that it is not a proportionate punishment for drug crimes which form the largest number of capital crimes in Thailand, and that the occurrence of wrongful execution of the innocent is not avoided. The moratorium is intended to allow an opportunity to begin the process of reflection on capital punishment, to assess the evidence which has led the majority of the world’s countries to abolish it, and to discover the motivation within Thai religious and cultural traditions for a choice in favour of life. The assurance to future generations that ‘Everyone has a right to life’ will enhance the value of every life and emphasize that there are no useless people. It is time to begin. If not now, when?