Every day, in around 40 countries all over the world, individuals are “legally” executed by the state as form of punishment for a wide variety of crimes. In the last three decades, the number of countries that decided to abolish capital punishment has notably increased; yet, the use of death sentences to punish unlawful behaviors remains widespread.
Death penalty constitutes a grave breach of international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and, in some cases, of national law. International organizations – led by the United Nations and backed by non-governmental agencies all over the world – have worked tirelessly to promote the abolition of capital punishment, and concerned masses and communities across the globe have expressed their disdain for the ruthless practice.
However, several sovereign nations still refuse to abide by international legal standards and persist in the use of death sentences to punish a variety of crimes. Death penalty is backed by the theoretical argument highlighting the compelling necessity to inflict serious and irreversible punishments in order to discipline the population, and to prevent the recurrence of specific unlawful practices and behaviors.
Yet, all arguments supporting the use of capital punishment can be easily dismantled by the following list of lawful principles and rational argumentations.
- Death penalty denies basic human rights
- Death penalty is irreversible: the risk of killing innocent men is high
- Death penalty is not impartial; on the contrary, it is often applied on the basis of discriminatory principles (race, income, religion, sexual orientation, disabilities etc.)
- Death penalty does not deter crime
- Death penalty is often perpetrated by corrupt governments, authorized by skewed judicial systems, and used as a political tool
- Death penalty does not provide redress to the victims of the alleged crime
- Death penalty is contrary to democratic values
- Death penalty is cruel and inhuman
- Death penalty denies basic human rights
1. Death penalty denies two fundamental human rights, namely the right to life, and the right to live free from torture. International law explicitly prohibits the use of capital punishment, except during war times.
- The Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty;
- The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
- Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights;
- Protocol No. 13 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental
- Freedoms [European Convention on Human Rights] concerning the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances;
All the just mentioned protocols are landmarks of international law, and all include specific provisions requiring the abolition of death penalty.
Moreover, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone […] without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status […] has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” As such, not only is death penalty inhuman, but it is also unlawful.
2. Death penalty is irreversible: the risk of killing innocent men is high
Even in countries characterized by a strong and functioning judicial system, the risk of sentencing innocent men to death is rather high. For instance, since 1973, 150 prisoners sentenced to capital punishment in the United States have, later, been released and, ultimately, acquitted. Many others, instead, have been executed despite serious concerns and doubts over their effective culpability.
In war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq, and in nations with weak and skewed judicial system like Belarus and Saudi Arabia, the likelihood of having innocent men condemned to death is even higher. In such countries, capital punishment is used as a political tool to instill fear in the masses and to repress the opposition; to date, countless innocent civilians have lost their lives by the hand of corrupt and cruel governments.
3. Death penalty is not impartial; on the contrary, it is often applied on the basis of discriminatory principles (race, income, religion, sexual orientation, disabilities etc.)
In countries where death penalty is in use, the judicial system has the power to decide between death and life. However, the chances of being condemned by an impartial and discriminatory judgement are extremely high.
- People with physical and mental disabilities
- Poor people
- People pertaining to racial, religious or ethnic minorities
Such categories of people are more likely to be sentenced to death because:
- They cannot afford competent and effective legal resources
- They are the target of political agendas
- They are deemed impure or “different”
- They are subjected to mock trials
- They are extorted confessions with torture
- They are judged by a biased court/system
4. Death penalty does not deter crime
Countries refusing to abolish capital punishment, often argue that death penalty is a useful and necessary tool used to deter crimes and violent actions or behaviors.
However, scientific evidence has shown that there is no correlation whatsoever between the use of death penalty and the reduction in crime rates.
On the contrary, statistics show that countries where death penalty is abolished bordering the United States – country where the use of capital punishment is still in place – have lower crime rates than the US. Moreover, in the South of the United States, where 80 percent of all executions take place, there is a higher crime rate than in the North.
No scientific study nor official source supports the claim that death penalty is an effective deterrent.
5. Death penalty is often perpetrated by corrupt governments, authorized by skewed judicial systems, and used as a political tool
Most countries executing death penalty have extremely unfair legal systems, and are characterized by a strong influence and strict control of the government over the judicial apparatus. For instance, China, Iran, and Iraq – and recently Syria – are the deadliest countries if we consider the number of death sentences issued following mock or unfair trials.
In some cases, the alleged criminals do not have the opportunity to speak with a lawyer, and sometimes they are judged by military courts rather than by civilian tribunals. One of the most appalling examples of such heinous practice is the Syrian prison of Saydnaya, where, in the last six years, around 13.000 civilians were arbitrarily sentenced to death and killed.
6. Death penalty does not provide redress to the victims of the alleged crime
Killing a killer or murdering a rapist does not give any redress to the victims who suffered the crime (killing, rape etc.). Victims need physical, psychological, financial and structural support; they need to perceive that the government can assist them and can ensure a fair and just punishment to the perpetrators of the crime. Moreover, death penalty inflicts the same degree of suffering to the families of the alleged criminal.
7. Death penalty is contrary to democratic values
Capital punishment is a typical feature of totalitarian regimes. Democracies are characterized by few fundamental principles:
- Political and civic values
- Basic shared human rights
- The government is given power by popular consent
- Anyone accused of a crime has the right to a fair, quick and public trial
- Laws, procedures and regulations apply equally to all citizens
As we have seen, death penalty often infringes many of the just mentioned principles. As such, it is fair to argue that capital punishment is contrary to democratic values.
8. Death penalty is cruel and inhuman
Death penalty is carried out in different ways according to the country and the situation of concern. The most widespread techniques are:
- Shooting in the back of the head
- Lethal injections
Despite the common belief that capital punishment is quick and painless, all the just mentioned techniques can fail, and inflict unthinkable pain and suffering on the victim.
For instance, on December 13, 2006, Angel Nieves Diaz was executed in such a botched and excruciating way, that the then Florida’s Republican Governor, Jeb Bush – acknowledge death penalty supporter – issued an order halting executions in the State. The carrying-poison-needles were wrongly inserted in Diaz’s skin, and the chemicals infiltrated his soft tissues rather than his veins. Diaz suffered unbearable pain – which caused 30 cm of chemical burns inside his arms – for 34 minutes before new needles were inserted.
Not only is death penalty a cruel and inhuman form of punishment, but it also breaches fundamental principles of international law, international human rights law, and international humanitarian law.
Capital punishment is a feature pertaining to bigot and totalitarian ideologies, it denies fundamental human rights, it inflicts needless pain and brutal suffering, and it is often carried out in arbitrary and superficial manners. Recalling the last words pronounced by Angel Nieves Diaz, “The death penalty is not only a form of vengeance, but also a cowardly act by humans”.