By J C Suresh
There are miles and miles to go before capital punishment is at last accepted as a remnant of the gory past and abolished. But indications are that it is slowly on its way out. Amnesty International has welcomed an upsurge in global support for abolition of the death penalty, after the UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted overwhelmingly in favour of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.
In the vote on December 20, the fourth such vote by the plenary session of the UNGA since 2007, 111 states voted for the resolution – an increase of two from the last vote in 2010. There were 41 votes against, with 34 abstentions.
New voters in favour of the moratorium included the Central African Republic, Chad, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Tunisia. As a further positive sign, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia moved from opposition to abstention.
However, Amnesty expressed regret that Bahrain, Dominica and Oman changed their abstention to a vote against the resolution, while Maldives, Namibia and Sri Lanka went from a vote in favour to an abstention.
Amnesty International’s UN representative in New York José Luis Díaz said the vote “reaffirmed the clear worldwide trend of moving away from the use of the death penalty,” and added: “There are now 140 countries worldwide that are abolitionist in law or practice.
“Although the UNGA vote is not legally binding, it does express the will of the international community and is a strong signal from the world body. The death penalty is the ultimate form of cruel and inhuman punishment – we oppose its use in all circumstances.”
“The new vote at the UN for a moratorium records the positive developments taking place in the world towards the end of the Cain-State and the overcoming of the fake and archaic principle of eye for an eye,” said Sergio D’Elia, Secretary of Hands Off Cain, the Association linked to the Nonviolent Radical Party.
European nations have pressed hard for votes backing a moratorium. But Norway’s ambassador Geir Pedersen said the growing numbers backing an end to capital punishment show “this is no longer dominated by western countries. This is a global campaign.”
“The importance of the vote is that it sends a very strong message to the international community across the board,” Pedersen told AFP. “The General Assembly is the one place where all nations are represented and you have a strong majority in favor of a moratorium.”
“There is a global trend toward fewer countries executing people and for us, it is an important issue of principle,” the ambassador added.
Pedersen said that when he raises objections to the death penalty in bilateral talks with countries that impose capital punishment, “we have the feeling that they are on the defensive.”
Though capital punishment continues to stay in the U.S., a new report says that fewer states are resorting to death penalty and that death sentences are near record low. On December 18, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) released “The Death Penalty in 2012: Year End Report,” highlighting significant developments in capital punishment this year.
The report noted the number of new death sentences in 2012 was the second lowest since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, representing a nearly 75% decline since 1996, when there were 315 new death sentences. Only nine states carried out executions in 2012, equalling the fewest number of states to do so in 20 years.
In 2012, use of the death penalty was clustered in a few states. Just four states (Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Arizona) were responsible for over three-quarters of the executions nationwide. Death sentences were also primarily from a few areas, with four states (Florida, California, Texas, and Pennsylvania) accounting for almost two-thirds of the nation’s death sentences.
In addition, Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty, and the fifth state to do so in the last five years. “Capital punishment is becoming marginalized and meaningless in most of the country,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “In 2012, fewer states have the death penalty, fewer carried out executions, and death sentences and executions were clustered in a small number of states. It is very likely that more states will take up the question of death penalty repeal in the years ahead.”
In China too, judicial restraint has resulted in reduction of death sentences. A conference held on December 15-16 in Beijing discussed a range of measures aimed at significantly reducing the use of capital punishment in China. The seminar, which was part of a major project entitled ‘Judicial Restraints on Application of the Death Penalty in China’, under the auspices of the College for Criminal Law Science of Beijing Normal University, was attended by some of the most senior academics in the country in the field of criminal justice, judges from courts around the country and other professionals from the criminal justice system.
“Although the purpose of the project is not to campaign for abolition of the death penalty, many speakers made the point that this is the ultimate objective and that judicial restraint is one means of achieving it,” William A. Schabas, Professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, wrote in his blog. He was the only non-Chinese participant in the meeting.
According to Hands Off Cain, speakers also expressed the need to have more precise information about the use of capital punishment, which remains an official secret in China. “However, after this meeting and many other encounters with experts in the Chinese criminal justice system, I feel confident in making a few very educated guesses,” Professor Schabas said. “In the past year, China has probably executed about 3,000 people. This represents a decline of more than 50% from the number only five years ago,” he noted, adding: “The vast majority of these executions are for homicide in one form or another, although China also uses the death penalty for a range of non-violent crimes including drug trafficking and corruption.”
While these developments sounded positive, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch reported on December 24 that a court in Saudi Arabia has decided to proceed with the prosecution of an online activist for apostasy, a charge which carries the death penalty, in what Amnesty International said is a new bid to stifle political and social debate.
On December 22, the General Court in Jeddah had Raif Badawi, 25, sign documents to enable his trial on apostasy charges to go ahead, after his case was passed to it by a District Court on December 17.
Badawi – who founded ‘Saudi Arabian Liberals’, a website for political and social debate – has been in detention since June 2012 on charges including “setting up a website that undermines general security” and ridiculing Islamic religious figures.
Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. “Even in Saudi Arabia where state repression is rife, it is beyond the pale to seek the death penalty for an activist whose only ‘crime’ was to enable social debate online,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty Internationals Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“Raif Badawi’s trial for ‘apostasy’ is a clear case of intimidation against him and others who seek to engage in open debates about the issues that Saudi Arabians face in their daily lives. He is a prisoner of conscience who must be released immediately and unconditionally.”