United Nations Court of Human Rights Calls for Executions to Be Abolished
In February 2023, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on nations still practicing the death penalty to work harder towards abolishing it. The practice continues to be implemented in 79 countries today. In his address, while Volker Türk acknowledged that opponents of this view may have concerns about victims’ rights. However, he questioned whether humanity benefits from revenge, suggesting that depriving human beings of their lives degrades society.
Drawing on data collected from around the world, the consensus among criminal justice experts is that the ideal response is to prevent and limit crime, Türk explained. He called upon governments to collect, analyze, and publish data on the use of capital punishment and show whether it works as intended. Further, he emphasized that these findings must be made available to the public.
In July 2023, Singapore was denounced by civil liberties and human rights organizations after Saridewi Djamani became the first woman to be executed there in almost two decades. The 45-year-old Singaporean received the sentence in 2018 after being caught trafficking around 30 grams of heroin, according to Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau. Saridewi Djamani is believed to be the first woman to be executed in Singapore since Yen May Woen, a 36-year-old hairdresser, was hanged for drug trafficking in 2004.
Here's what you need to know about the practice, its legality, and its potential future:
The Death Penalty around the World
Although 70 percent of countries have abolished the death penalty, it is still imposed in populous parts of the world, including parts of the United States, China, and India. Amnesty International reported a 53 percent increase in the number of executions globally throughout 2022, despite four countries ending use of the death penalty that year.
In 2022, its figures indicate that 883 people were executed in 19 countries, compared with 579 known executions in 2021. These figures exclude China, where information on executions is classified because it is considered a state secret. Amnesty International has raised concerns about this, believing that thousands of executions may be performed there every year.
Human rights campaigners argue that the death penalty is improper for a variety of reasons. In the United States, opinion is divided. Some states still execute human beings, others have ended the practice, and still more have halted executions with governor-issued moratoriums despite their technical legality. A 2021 Gallup poll revealed that 54 percent of participants were in favor of the death penalty, although that figure fell to just 41 percent among those between ages 18 and 34.
Arguments in Favor of the Death Penalty's Abolition
Civil liberties advocates argue that the death penalty is inhumane. Hangings, electric chairs, lethal injections, and firing squads conflict with The Convention Against Torture, an international treaty designed to prevent actions regarded as inhumane. Although the Convention does not mention the death penalty specifically, many believe that executions fall within the scope of punishments described in the document. Despite contentions that executions can be performed “humanely,” research suggests that between 1890 and 2010, about 3 percent of US executions were mismanaged.
Another argument for the abolition of the death penalty is its inequity; it disproportionately affects certain groups. According to the United Nations, these groups are more often targeted by the police. They can’t afford good legal representation and often receive free legal aid late in the process, meaning they do not receive a fair trial. Research indicates that in the United States, 35 percent of people executed in the last 40 years were Black, despite people who are Black making up just 13 percent of the American population.
One of the biggest problems with the death penalty is that it cannot be reversed if new evidence comes to light. Alarmingly, almost every state that imposes death sentences had overall capital conviction and appeal error rates of more than 52 percent, according to a study by Professor James Liebman of Columbia Law School.
A logical argument is that while the death penalty may not be ideal, if it deters crime, then perhaps it functions as intended. However, research suggests that it may not be an effective deterrent. In states with the death penalty, the average murder rate per 100,000 people was 5.5 in 1999. In states without the death penalty, on the other hand, the murder rate was significantly lower, at 3.6.
Finally, the death penalty as practiced in many countries today is not solely reserved for the gravest of crimes, such as murder or terrorism. Many countries, of which Singapore is only the most recent example, use execution to attempt to deter drug trafficking.
The United Nations argues that use of the death penalty is not consistent with the right to life, and to live free from torture and inhumane, cruel, or degrading punishment or treatment. Today, there is growing consensus in favor of the death penalty’s universal abolition, with 170 nations having ceased the practice, or placed a moratorium on it in either law or practice.