By William Fisher
The good news is that momentum against the death penalty is gaining ground around the world. The bad news is that the number of people executed in 2010 -- at least 527 – does not include China, the numbers are in
the thousands .
These are two of the conclusions of a database survey carried out by Amnesty International (AI) entitled, “Death Sentences and Executions in
AI’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign Director Laura Moye says, "It is difficult given the incredible secrecy that surrounds the death penalty, but
from the information that we do have, we are convinced that the numbers are in the thousands," she said.
Despite these numbers, Moye says there are signs of a downward trend in China, like elsewhere in the world.
"It seems that in China there has been a move to limit the number of crimes
punishable by death. So some of the white-collar crimes have been eliminated - or at least there is a proposal to eliminate them - from the list of capital crimes. So we are hopeful that China is also heeding the message from the international community and from human rights proponents that the death penalty start to be whittled down toward its elimination," she said.
While the organization did not come up with numbers for other Asian countries that carried out executions, including Malaysia, North Korea and Vietnam, it did include Iran, Yemen and the United States.
Iran ran a distant second behind China, with at least 252 reported executions, followed by Yemen with at least 53, and the United States with 46.
But the report notes that Illinois this month became the 16th U.S. state
to abolish the death penalty.
The only country that joined the list of countries abolishing the death penalty
in 2010 was the central African nation of Gabon.
AI says 139 countries have now abolished the death penalty in law or in
practice. A human rights campaign is currently under way for another African country, Ghana, to take the death penalty off its own books as it revises its constitution.
Asked by The Public Record for the reasons behind the decline, Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told us:
“The use of the death penalty is declining both internationally and in the U.S. because it is increasingly seen as a violation of human rights. In the developed world, secure prisons have for a long time supplanted any perceived need for executions. Moreover, the inherent dangers of abuse and mistake in capital punishment make it an unnecessary risk that endangers, rather than saves, human lives.”
He continued: “So many other rights that countries seek to protect for their own people and for others have their foundation in the basic right to life. With that insight, many countries of world are using tools such as treaties and economic incentives to promote an end to the death penalty. Capital punishment is largely a political symbol rather than an instrument of the criminal justice system. Countries can give it up with no real loss, while shedding the image of tyranny and embracing compassion.”
Dieter added, “In the U.S., the scales are tipping against the death penalty as its financial and intangible costs mount on one side and any benefits disappear from the other. Among those costs is the growing condemnation of the world. Many in this country recall what apartheid meant for South Africa in the 1980s -- they do not want the U.S. to be the last country standing with the death penalty.”
Moye says Amnesty International is also closely looking at the volatile
situation in the Middle East, where many countries caught up in unrest,
including Yemen, Libya and Syria, were in the top ten last year for most
executions. But she says the region also has countries which had very few or no executions.
"In the Middle East, while Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, have often been at the top of the list as far as number of executions, there are many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa that have not been actively executing its citizens in recent years. That includes Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Western Sahara and the United Arab Emirates as well as Tunisia. So overall in the region we are seeing signs of progress," she said.
In December, a resolution renewing the United Nations General Assembly call for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty was adopted with 109 votes in favor, 41 against and 35 abstentions. This was a slight increase in favor of the moratorium compared to previous votes on the same issue in the world body in recent years.
Countries that continue to use the death penalty are being left increasingly
isolated following a decade of progress towards abolition, Amnesty International has said.
A total of 31 countries abolished the death penalty in law or in practice during the last 10 years but China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the USA and Yemen remain amongst the most frequent executioners, some in direct contradiction of international human rights law.
The total number of executions officially recorded by Amnesty International in 2010 went down from at least 714 people in 2009 to at least 527 in 2010,
“The minority of states that continue to systematically use the death penalty
were responsible for thousands of executions in 2010, defying the global
anti-death penalty trend,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
“While executions may be on the decline, a number of countries continue to pass death sentences for drug-related offences, economic crimes, sexual relations between consenting adults and blasphemy, violating international human rights law forbidding the use of the death penalty except for the most serious crimes,” said Shetty.
AI also reports on a number of setbacks during 2010 when six other countries and territories carried out executions after a hiatus and one country expanded the scope of the death penalty.
“In spite of some set backs, developments in 2010 brought us closer to global abolition. The President of Mongolia announced a moratorium on the death penalty, an important first step as capital punishment is still classified as state secret. For the third time and with more support than ever before, the UN General Assembly called for a global moratorium on executions” said Shetty.
Since 2003, less than half of retentionist countries have carried out
executions. Less than a third were known to have executed prisoners every year over the last four years.
“Any country that continues to execute is flying in the face of the fact that
both human rights law and UN human rights bodies consistently hold that
abolition should be the objective.”
“A world free of the death penalty is not only possible, it is inevitable,” said
Salil Shetty. “The question is how long will it take?”
An equally optimistic note was sounded by Chip Pitts, lecturer in law at Stanford Law School and Oxford, and a long-time human rights activist. He told The Public Record, “One of my favorite quotes is Martin Luther King’s observation that ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice’. While the so-called “global war on terror(ism) has been a notable and tragic exception to this long-term positive tendency, events like the Arab Spring validate King’s observation.”
Pitts explains the trend away from executions this way: “The global rejection of the death penalty, though still incomplete, is part of this march of civilization and expanding human rights. The trend is accelerated by information technologies that allow human beings from all over the planet to communicate, appreciate their common humanity and shared rights and values, and then cooperate in forms of education and activism that highlight the corrupt hubris and fallible decision-making of the powerful. Nowhere is the arrogance and imperfection of power more evident than in presuming to take another life, even in the name of justice.”
He adds, “The facts are that the death penalty in practice, wherever in the world it appears, is inherently arbitrary, discriminatory, and imperfect – and such imperfection is simply intolerable when it comes to the ultimate penalty. Amnesty International’s activists and supporters have been at the forefront in pointing this out, so those concerned with questions of human rights and human dignity should join Amnesty and human rights educators in building the understanding and encouraging the actions that abolish medieval atrocities like torture and the death penalty now and forever.”
Pitts is a former Chairman of Amnesty International USA and is currently a member of the Board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center was asked by The Public Record if people in the “right to life” community are as concerned about executions of adults as they are about the unborn. This is his response:
“For Catholics, I think there is such a correlation. Interestingly, Gov. Pat Quinn noted the influence of the late Cardinal Bernadin when deciding to sign Illinois's abolition bill. Bernadin was the promoter of the "seamless garment" approach that all life is sacred from beginning to end. He espoused an overall respect for life throughout one's actions, rather than various stances on discrete issues.
”Many opponents of the death penalty do not approach the issue as a moral or religious one, so they may see no connection to other ‘life’ issues. At the other end of the spectrum, there are certainly anti-abortion adherents who support the death penalty, and do so religiously. I think the distinction they draw is between innocent lives and the guilty.”
He added, ”I have a sense that distinction is breaking down, partly because of the realization that we have no infallible way of determining guilt and innocence. Also, many conservative religious folks believe that people can change, and their ministries reach out to prisoners. That may further dissipate the wall between worthy and unworthy lives.”
The AI report also includes a set of regional summaries. These are below:
In the USA, the only country in the Americas to carry out executions, at least 110 death sentences were imposed during 2010 but this represents only about a third of the number handed down in the mid-1990s. And in March 2011, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty.
In 2010 Amnesty International was not able to confirm comprehensive figures on the use of the death penalty for China, Malaysia, North Korea, Singapore and Viet Nam although executions were known to have been carried out in all these countries. Available information from five other countries in the region confirmed at least 82 executions were carried out in Asia.
Eleven countries imposed death sentences but continued not to carry out executions in 2010: Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, India, Indonesia, Laos, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The Pacific Islands remained free from death sentences and executions. In January 2010the President of Mongolia announced a moratorium on executions with a view to abolition of the death penalty.
Europe and Central Asia
After a year’s hiatus in 2009 when for the first time no executions were recorded in Europe and the former Soviet Union, in March 2010 the Belarusian authorities carried out two executions. Three new death sentences were imposed in Belarus in 2010.
Middle East and North Africa
Fewer death sentences and executions were recorded in total in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 than in 2009. However, where the death penalty was imposed it was frequently used after unfair trials and for offences, such as drug-trafficking or adultery, which are not recognized as the “most serious crimes” and therefore in violation of international law.
The authorities of Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco/Western Sahara, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates imposed death sentences but continued to refrain from carrying out executions.
The Iranian authorities acknowledged the execution of 252 people, including
five women and one juvenile offender in 2010. Amnesty International says it received credible reports of more than 300 other executions which were not officially acknowledged, mostly in Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad. Most were of people convicted of alleged drugs offences. Fourteen people were publicly executed. Death sentences continued to be imposed in large numbers.
In 2010 one more African country, Gabon, abolished the death penalty, bringing the number of abolitionist countries among African Union members to 16.
Four countries were known to have executed in sub-Saharan Africa in 2010: Botswana (1), Equatorial Guinea (4), Somalia (at least 8) and Sudan (at least 6).