World turns against death penalty

Fifty years ago only ten countries had completely abolished the death penalty. In 1977, the year Amnesty International took up the cause, just 17 countries were death penalty-free.

Since then, there has been a sea change.  As documented in Amnesty’s report on Death Sentences and Executions in 2010, published this week, 96 countries have now fully abolished capital punishment, while only 58 actively retain it. Of these, only 23 actually carried out executions in 2010. The remaining 43 nations have the death penalty on the books, but do not really use it.

Essentially, more than two-thirds of the world’s countries are now living without the death penalty.

Click image for an interactive map showing how the world has moved to abolish the death penalty, 1961-2010

And, lest we forget to disaggregate the United States, thanks to Illinois which introduced a death penalty ban as recently as this month, so are almost one-third of U.S. states. Although, while executions and death sentences have been dropping in the U.S. over the last decade, the use of capital punishment has been declining at a much faster rate worldwide, so that in 2010, the U.S. ranked in the top 5 of the world’s most prolific executioners, beaten only by China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen. Nice company.

Yesterday’s Irish Times carried a powerful editorial, The pointless extinction of life, quoting Justice John Paul Steven. In Gregg v Georgia in 1976, he was part of the majority on the U.S. Supreme Court that voted to allow restoration of the death penalty. It is the one and only one vote that he still regrets.

In a 2008 judgment, he noted his conversion to the abolitionist cause:

I have relied on my own experience in reaching the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes.

While there are still some in our local body politic who would like to see the death penalty return to the UK, isn’t Justice Steven correct in judging the world a more civilised place without the death penalty?

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  • It should be an indicator for “civilisation” but with 193 or whatever countries in UN, how many of them are really places worth living in…there is actually an index which rates them. But outside western Europe, Oceania, North America and a handful of others in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the quality of life with or without the death penalty is not that good.
    All my life I have been against the death penalty. Now Im too old to care. Maybe because I heard it all first time (was it Silverman and Lipton back in the day?)
    But is it really a cause for celebration that Britain and France dont have a death penalty for their own subjects/citizens and condemning others (not in Britain and France) to die by bombing them from 50,000 feet.
    Thats not civilisation.

  • fjh, thanks for comments – agreed for the most part.

    This is, of course, a case of ceteris paribus – ‘all other things being equal’. Is the world a slightly better place with or without the death penalty? We’re agreed, I think, that it is the latter case, notwithstanding all the other atrocious things which persist.

    It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, and all that…

  • But is it really a cause for celebration that Britain and France dont have a death penalty for their own subjects/citizens and condemning others (not in Britain and France) to die by bombing them from 50,000 feet.

    I take it that this is a reference to the bombing raids currently taking place over Libya, particularly as France is involved in that campaign but never was in Iraq.

    National criminal law and International law are separate subjects. Enforcing the latter sometimes requires military intervention, which inevitably involves loss of life but the object of such inervention is and should be to reduce it.

  • Looking at that map, I am somewhat surprised that Japan and India are still buff coloured.

    Both of those countries are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. Article 6 of the Covenant recognises the individual’s inherent right to life. does not prohibit the death penalty but it restricts its application to the most serious crimes.

    You would have thought that those two countries and some others would by now have been coloured purple.

  • Indeed they are different issues.
    Countries do things to foreigners that they wont do to their own subjects/citizens.
    And thats of course…good?
    Cos foreigners arent the same as …us.

    I am of course against the death penalty. Standard slightly left of centre touchstone issue to which I am fully paid up.
    But theres the slightly discomforting fact that our present state has been achieved “in spite of” rather than “because of” public opinion.
    Strange that when most campaigners talk about the injustice they mention Derek Bentley and Timothy Evans. Or Ruth Ellis?
    There was a time when James Hanratty was perceived as belonging in the same group and certainly from my perspective as a teen in the 1960s a more publicised figure than the other three who were guilty (however defined).
    But Hanratty was the cause celebre because he was “innocent”.
    And as it turned much much later out thru DNA….guilty as sin.
    Just how the debate would have panned out …had it been known……is interesting.

  • Countries do things to foreigners that they wont do to their own subjects/citizens.

    Just as it is certain that night follows day, a country that is in breach of international law just happens to be foreign to the countries that are enforcing it. Any suggestion of jingoism as a motive for carrying out that intervention is unjustified.

    But theres the slightly discomforting fact that our present state has been achieved “in spite of” rather than “because of” public opinion.

    The abolition of the death penalty is actually an example of politicians leading leading reform in front of public opinion, rather than the other way around. In Britain, during the 1980s, there was a series of debates about bringing back the death penalty, particularly in relation to acts of terrorism. At the time of those debates, opinion polls indicated that the vast majority of people wanted the death penalty brought back. Parliament voted (I believe on 3 occasions) not to bring it back.

    There are still a lot of people in Britain who would support bringing back the death penalty but almost certainly not as many as in the 1980s. As people become more used to human rights as a core set of standards applying to the rule of law, I think fewer people will remain in favour of the death penalty.

  • I think it depends…….a resurgence of terrorism would produce a resurgence in the debate. If there was a year long series of attrocities in London rather than the (hopefully) one-off 7/7 attrocity…then it would come back into politics.
    Yes its a triumph of politicians actually leading rather than being led (and of course we applaud that because of the side of the argument I (we?) am.
    But other examples of politicians rather than being led……European integration? …………we object to because I (we?) look at the actual issue differently.

    But essentially the argument has been won….as a Society we are against capital punishment.
    But its a touchstone issue…….for me a wishy washy left of centre person then its obvious I am against it. But the white van man who phones Jon Gaunt on Talk radio sees it as totemic in another way.
    But in 10 or 15 years the “democracy” of the Internet will start to filter thru. And our standards of right/wrong will change.

  • FJH,

    In a mature democracy, like ours, it would be better if politicians did lead on most issues, because they are the group of people most likely to have an informed opinion; not just because of their obligation to discuss and debate but because they are constantly being fed, usually through government departments and Parliamentary committees by experts in charge of an army of researchers with an unlimited access to data.

    This is not, I would agree, a guarantee that politicians will always find the right path and you are right to highlight European integration. At the end of the day, however, if politicians do not lead public opinion, the result is usually a greater political problem further down the line, requiring a much greater degree of intervention and cost, than the measure which should have been taken ab initio.

  • Yes politicians are representatives not delegates but we tend to WANT them to be delegates when the issue on which they lead (Europe in my case) is out of step with public opinion.
    When they lead on issues (Capital Punishment) which are fully in line with my views then Im happy enough to lecture white van men that our politicians are representatives.

    But I worry about the instant democracy of the phone ins and internet message boards where “democracy” (as a wishy washy lefty like me sees it) gives way to “populism” (as I see it)

  • Rory Carr

    But Hanratty was the cause celebre because he was “innocent”.
    And as it turned much much later out thru DNA….guilty as sin.
    Just how the debate would have panned out …had it been known……is interesting.

    Not everyone, including myself, are so easily convinced that the DNA evidence was so untainted as to conclude as you have done, FJH, that Hanratty was “guilty as sin”. If there are to be any conclusions of absolute guilt drawn in this case then we should start first with the absolute guilt of the investigating police in witholding vital evidence from the defence and distorting or indeed manufacturing other crucial evidence to assist the prosecution’s extremely weak case.

    The evidence for Hanratty’s alibi has only grown stronger over the years and unless, like Padre Pio, he had the gift of bilocation, it was not physically possible for him to have been near Hangman’s Hill in Bedford on a night when it is known that he was in Rhyl in North Wales. Further, the man who conducted the CCRC investigation into the case, former Herfordshire Chief Constable, Bill Skitt, was so unconvinced by the probity of the DNA evidence (given the likliehood of possible contamination) that, as he went to take the swab from Hanratty’s ailing mother, said to her other son, Michael, “”Your brother was innocent – we just can’t explain the DNA.”

    Paul Foot, like me, remained convinced of Hanratty’s innocence until his dying day:

  • Clanky

    The issue is not the guilt or innocence of those executed, but that regardless of their guilt or innocence we as a society do no good by killing people.

    The death of a criminal does not undo the crime, it cannot bring back loved ones or repair the lost innocence of a child. When you compare crime statistics in countries where the death penalty is practised they are no lower than in those where it is not, So if it does not bring comfort to the victims and it does not deter criminals then the only purpose which seems to be left is retribution, do you really want to live in a society which kills people for revenge?

  • Rory Carr

    I quite agree, Clanky. However, apart from retribution there is another aspect to be considered and that is where the likliehood of the imposition of the death penalty becomes the very motive for murder itself.

    This was the case when a mentally impaired man, Daniel Colwell, in July 1996 purchased a pistol and retired to a motel room in the town of Americus, Georgia with the intention of ending his life. However, his nerve having failed him and, unable to go through with the suicide, he reasoned that if he killed another person he would be likely to be executed by the state and so his wish to end his own life would so be fulfilled.

    Colwell further reasoned that, as he was himself a black man, he was more likely again to be executed if his chosen victim was neither Black nor Hispanic and so, outside WalMart, he shot to death Mitchell Bell, a white man and, just to be sure, also killed his wife, Judith, a white woman.

    Although he was diagnosed as suffering from acute paranoid-schizophrenia and harbouring long-term suicidal tendencies, he was deemed not to be suffering from ‘mental retardation’, the only category of impairment sufficient to mitigate the death penalty under Georgia’s statutes and so Colwell was duly sentenced to death as he had demanded ever since his arrest and throughout his trial.

    In 2003, following the suspension of the death penalty in a neighbouring state and, fearing that Georgia might follow suit, Colwell hanged himself in his condemned cell so demonstrating the seriousness of his suicidal drive.

    What Colwell’s case illustrates is a growing drift of similar cases in the USA (22 to date) where defendants have made similar demands for execution following murders which they committed solely in order to attract the death penalty. This phenomenon has been named ‘Suicide by State’ after the phenomenon of ‘suicide-by-cop’ where a mentally disturbed individual invites death by gunfire from police by himself going abroad armed in an apparently menacing manner.

    And so it is that we come full circle, so that, not alone does the death penalty cease to be a dterrent to murder but actually becomes the inspiration, the very motivation for murder itself.