Death penalty-free world?

We’re winning! That’s not a claim you may hear too often from human rights activists, but in the case of the global struggle against the death penalty, it’s true.

The momentum around the world is towards ending executions. The vast majority of countries have now abandoned the death penalty. On the eve of World Day against the Death Penalty, that’s worth noting.

Yet a small, and increasingly isolated, group of governments continue to put their own people to death.

The past decade has seen significant progress in the march towards a world in which the death penalty is no longer deemed a legitimate form of punishment – surprising given so many other post-September 11th attacks on human rights.

Surprising but true. Since 2002, 21 countries have officially abolished the death penalty. This means that 140 states – from every region, associated with every major religion and from diverse legal systems are abolitionist in law or practice. Belarus remains the last country in Europe with the death penalty. Despite efforts from some local MPs, it is not on any serious political agenda in this country.

But, this battle is a long one and challenges remain.

Executions continue to be carried out by some particularly powerful states, most notably China and the US. And a handful of countries are peculiarly enthusiastic when it comes to doling out the death penalty.

China accounts for the vast majority of executions followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US and Iraq.

However, even within those states, we have witnessed some progress. In the United States, a number of individual states have declared a moratorium on executions. China abolished the death penalty for 13 non-violent offences and banned executions for people over the age of 75 – though, tragically, the death penalty was also extended to include some other crimes.

And elsewhere, it’s not all progress either.

Such as in rarely mentioned Japan, where 131 people are now on death row. After nearly two years of no executions in the country, earlier this year Japan again started to hang prisoners, including last month, Sachiko Eto, the first woman to be killed in fifteen years. Campaigners from Amnesty International and other groups are asking their new Justice Minister, Keishu Tanaka, to stop all executions and end the death penalty in Japan.

Within the country there is now live debate about the issue. A previous (2005-6) Minister of Justice publicly stated that he would not sign death warrants, saying: “From the standpoint of the theory of civilisations, I believe that the general trend from a long-term perspective will be to move toward abolition.”

Within the last year the Japan Federation of Bar Associations has established a committee to pursue abolition, stating “the abolition of the death penalty has become an unshakable international trend, and now is the time to launch a social debate about its termination.”

It seems a matter of when, not if, Japan will join the global trend and leave the death penalty in its history books. That’s the proper place for it.

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