For decades, the death penalty has remained a largely controversial issue because it violates the most basic of human rights- “the right to life”. Often referred to as capital punishment, the practice involves the execution of an individual by the state as a means of punishment for a crime. States generally impose the death penalty for serious or capital crimes including; murder, treason, espionage crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. Some countries, particularly authoritarian states and illiberal democracies employ the death penalty for crimes such as terrorism, drug trafficking, rape, adultery and blasphemy etc. Internationally, there is still much debate about the death penalty, with some countries choosing to abolish it altogether, while others retaining it for use in extraordinary circumstances. A total of 56 countries still retains the death penalty as capital punishment, while 103 have abolished it in law (however, it may still exist in practice).
Intergovernmental organisations have played a vital role in promoting resolutions geared towards abolishing the death penalty in member states. The United Nations, for example, has played a key part by passing various non-binding resolutions, adopted in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 respectively. The body aims to eventually abolish the practice around the world. Similarly, the European Union’s (EU) Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights prohibits the use of the death penalty by its member states. Most developed countries agree with moves towards abolition and have abolished the death penalty either in practice or in law. However, the death penalty is still used by the United States’ federal government, along with 31 other US states. Some industrialised countries like; Japan, South Korea and China still make use of the death penalty to date. The death penalty is also still used as a form of capital punishment in many developing countries with the exception of South Africa, that abolished its use in 1995 (with the advent of democratic rule), Burundi in 2009, Gabon in 2010 and Benin in 2012, to name a few.
The death penalty as a form of capital punishment is controversial for many reasons. This is because it continues to pose problems in its application and use. One of the main and probably most important reasons against the use of the death penalty is that it is the worst form of human rights violation. This is because it effectively terminates the first inalienable right of all human beings, which is the right to life. An Amnesty International report written in 2010 argues that it is “the ultimate irreversible denial of human rights”. A second reason against the death penalty is that many illiberal democracies and authoritarian states, continue to utilise it as a tool of political oppression, used by the government to silence dissidents and the opposition. In many cases, it is also used to stall much needed democratic reforms in authoritarian and illiberal states. The practice has caused the deaths of many pro-democracy activists in Asia, as well as human rights activists in Latin America and Africa.
A third and potent issue relates to its use, which can sometimes result in a miscarriage of justice, particularly when an innocent person is executed. Studies show that more than 50 people in the United States alone, between 1990 and 2004 have been wrongly executed, and sentenced to death despite overwhelming evidence to suggest their innocence. In countries like Singapore, the death penalty continues to be applied in the country’s Misuse of Drugs Act which as reported by Amnesty International shifts the entirety of the blame to the accused. In these circumstances, the accused is generally perceived as guilty, even before a verdict is handed down. The fourth issue relates to its perceived prejudicial use. Studies show that the death penalty is often applied to persons from racial and ethnic minorities, as well as people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. It is reported that in the United States, accused persons of African-American descent are more likely to be given the death penalty than their Caucasian counterparts. The last point against the use of the death penalty relates to its application to juveniles and the implication thereof. The United Nations defines a child as anyone under the age of 18, therefore the use of the death penalty in relation to juveniles is a matter of serious concern.
Between 1990 and 2017, Amnesty International documented 87 cases of child executions in 9 countries, including; China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United States and Yemen. The report found that the United States and Iran had executed more juveniles than the other 7 countries in total. This is a worrisome trend as it constitutes a gross human rights crime because it not only violates the fundamental human rights of an individual, but it also contravenes Article 6 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that “Every Child has the Right to Life”.
Prisoner of Conscience: Ken Saro-wiwa, the Nigerian environmentalist and activist:
The death penalty remains a pertinent issue today as it was in the 1990’s; a decade that witnessed mass human rights violations by authoritarian regimes, eager to silence political dissidents and hold on to the reins of power. An event of particular importance occurred in the mid-1990’s, setting the scene for renewed international concern about the use and application of the death penalty.
In 1995, Ken Saro-wiwa, prominent Nigerian environmentalist and activist was executed by the Nigerian government for speaking out against the activities of the giant petroleum company Royal Dutch Shell, in the region and the inadequacies of the government of General Sani Abacha (the military head of state from 1993 to 1998). His death along with the Ogoni 8 sparked international outrage over the use and application of the death penalty as a tool of political oppression. Saro-wiwa was the then president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a group founded to address environmental degradation and poverty facing the people of the oil-producing Niger Delta region in Nigeria. In so doing Ken Saro-wiwa remained a prisoner of conscience, who led a nonviolent campaign against the Nigerian government’s complacency and the actions of Royal Dutch Shell, who were responsible for most of the environmental problems faced in the area.
His execution and subsequent death brought to the forefront the continued dangers of the use of the death penalty as a tool of political oppression, which was used to silence free speech, and possibly fore-stall attempts at a peaceful transition to democratic rule. Saro-wiwa’s death also highlighted the importance of continued advocacy and lobbying by non-government organisations (NGOs) at the international level, particularly within organisational structures such as; the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU), who have the power to influence member states. These intergovernmental bodies can, in turn, pressurise member states to abolish the use of the death penalty both in law (de jure) and in practice (de facto). The role of NGOs cannot be overstated because they advocate on behalf of people or persons facing imminent threats of execution, and can lobby governments to change this. Human rights activists such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and Fela Kuti of Nigeria are all examples of people that were held captive under the authoritarian laws of their governments, for their beliefs, but were subsequently helped (directly or indirectly) by the actions of international NGOs. Without which, the prevalence of gross human rights violations in these situations would have continued unabated.