Death penalty: Universal moratorium called for

It is time to reject what is increasingly seen as a cruel and counter-productive practice.

Until late 1970s, only 16 countries had abolished the capital punishment. Today, abolitionist nations are the overwhelming majority. More than two-third of nations, over 150 of the 193 members of the United Nations, have now rejected death penalty.

This evolution was led by the recognition that in any judicial procedure there is always the risk of a miscarriage of justice. If a person is jailed and later found to be innocent she or he can be released and provided compensation for the time unduly spent in prison.

This is not possible if an innocent sentenced to death has already been executed. The punishment is final and irreversible and there is no possible appeal from the grave. Death penalty is a toxic and destructive punishment that causes untold injustice and suffering. It represents the ultimate denial of human rights. In the words of Albert Camus, the French Nobel prize winner for literature, “capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders.”

Unfortunately, the cross-party in favour of death penalty is still operating on a global scale. It goes beyond ideologies, religions, political trends, historical periods and international law. Gallows are still erected in capitalist democracies as well as in authoritarian or fundamentalist regimes, in poor as well as rich and developed nations. The list of crimes punishable by death is extensive and changes with time. Only the reason to justify death penalty remains unchanged: it is considered as a deterrent against criminals; the supreme prerogative of the State to punish in ‘an appropriate way’ the most heinous crimes. These are both specious and simply irrational reasons. No one has ever been able to demonstrate the deterrent effect of death penalty on crimes. Executions do not deliver public safety or deter violent crime – instead they endorse violence. It is no surprise states that have abolished death penalty often have lower murder rates than those that are yet to do so.

Public opinion

It is therefore of paramount importance that countries that still envisage death penalty ensure that information and statistics regarding its use are made publicly available. Only an objectively informed public opinion can accept and support reforms of the penal system aimed at abolishing the capital punishment. Nowadays, there is a growing awareness on the issue and it is a fact that the trend towards abolition finds echoes in every region of the world. Even retentionist countries which head today the sad tally of executions are rethinking their approach.

The situation in many countries is still a cause of grave concern. In some cases, we have witnessed the worrying phenomenon of some countries, which had previously agreed on endorsing the moratorium, to take the decision of re-establishing death penalty. This is an involution which has distinguished mostly Asia and also Africa, with the reactivation of executions in Nigeria and Gambia. 

Italy is proud to be part of the cross-regional coalition of states supporting the international campaign against the capital punishment. It has been a major sponsor of the United Nations’ General Assembly Resolution on a universal moratorium of death penalty since its inception in 1994. It is an active part of the interregional task force entrusted with its drafting. It is also one of the most active promoters of the campaign to convince countries previously abstaining or voting against the text to switch their votes in favour of the resolution.

While not legally binding, the United Nations resolutions have been a political breakthrough, sending a strong message to the minority of countries still adhering to capital punishment that it is time to reject what is increasingly seen as a cruel and counter-productive practice. It is hard to overstate progress on this issue. A watershed moment came six years ago when, in December 2007, the United Nations General Assembly first adopted a resolution calling for a universal moratorium on the death penalty, with a view to  complete abolition.

This achievement was reinforced by three further UN General Assembly resolutions, in December 2008, 2010 and 2012. On each occasion, the vote supporting the call for a moratorium gathered strength: rising from 104 votes to 111, while those States voting negatively fell from 54 to 41.

Next fall, first the United Nations General Assembly Third Commission and then its plenary shall negotiate and vote the fifth resolution on the universal moratorium. It will try to reinforce also the content of the text, calling for the imposition of death penalty only for the most serious crimes and to establish a Special Rapporteur or Special Adviser of the Secretary General on the issue.

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