Abolishing the Death Penalty: Leadership Needed

JURIST Special Guest Columnist Terry Davis, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, says that progressive politicians in abolitionist and non-abolitionist countries alike - in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere - need to inform, educate and campaign for the abolition of capital punishment in their own countries and worldwide...



One day, in a not too distant future, the death penalty will be abolished throughout the world, and global standards of human decency will evolve to a new level. As with the abolition of slavery, it is not only a moral imperative; it is historically inevitable.

While the Philippines is the latest country to scrap the death penalty, in the United States of America a debate continues about whether injecting lethal poison into a human being is inhuman and degrading, and whether executing mentally impaired persons is wrong. According to the Gallup polls, most Americans believe the answer to both questions should be a resolute no.

In contrast, American public opinion is shocked by recent reports of the massacre in Haditha and the allegations that such a crime has been committed by US Marines. If the reports are true, the slain Iraqis were not killed in action but out of vengeance. Haditha was an execution in retribution, but so is capital punishment. The fact that in Haditha there was no court, no judge, no lawyers and no jury is a fault in form, not in substance. It has been reported that the soldiers involved, if found guilty, may themselves face the death penalty. This is sad beyond belief. Two wrongs do not make a right, and death can never be justice.

On the issue of death penalty, Europe is clearly taking a lead. None of the 46 member states of the Council of Europe have executed anybody in the past decade. All but one of the 46 countries have ratified Protocol 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights and formally abolished the death penalty. The exception is the Russian Federation, which has had a moratorium on the death penalty for ten years and is legally and politically bound to follow to convert de facto into de jure abolition as soon as possible. This has been made clear by Russian Foreign Minister Serguei Lavrov, who has said publicly that it is only a matter of time. The Russian Federation is a democracy, he said, and public opinion must be taken into account.

I agree on both points, but there are some issues on which leaders should lead, and not simply follow. Progressive politicians in abolitionist and non-abolitionist countries alike need to inform, educate and campaign for the abolition of capital punishment. If they are short of arguments, they are free to use mine. The death penalty is wrong because it is inhuman and degrading. It is dangerous because it may kill innocent people. It is unjustified because it does not deter crime any better than other forms of punishment. And finally, it is pointless because it gets criminals off the hook. When they are executed, they are no longer punished, they are simply dead.


Terry Davis is Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Europe's oldest political organization dedicated to protecting democracy, the rule of law and human rights
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