- Special Reports
The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective, Fifth Edition
Attitudes regarding the death penalty are often based on populist and electoral calculations.
For example, drug trafficking remains punishable by death in Indonesia: This year, the nation so far has executed 14, including eight foreign nationals, by firing squad. Australia, Netherlands and Brazil responded to the execution of their citizens by withdrawing their ambassadors from Jakarta for “consultations.”
The Death Penalty, by two Oxford professors of criminology, Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle, began as a 1988 report to the United Nations Committee on Crime Prevention and Control. They argue for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty.
The execution of foreign nationals exposes troubling inconsistencies, as revealed by recent headlines. In April, Prime Minister John Howard appealed for clemency to Indonesian President Joko Widodo to spare the lives of two Australians in April. Yet the authors point out that, after terrorist bombs killed 88 Australians on the island of Bali in 2002, Howard condoned the execution of the terrorists by firing squad. Not mentioned in the book is Howard’s response to the 1996 massacre in Tasmania after a gunman killed 35 and wounded 26 – tightening Australian gun laws despite objections from the gun lobby. There were no calls for the return of the death penalty.
The authors’ arguments against the death penalty are based on a human rights perspective: Human rights of those imprisoned for crimes should be respected; those who have committed serious crimes should be given a second chance to reform and atone for their misdeeds.
The 597-page book is scholarly, but readable and compassionate. The analysis is the result of ongoing research for nearly two decades during which more countries have abolished the death penalty. Uncertainty amongst its supporters has grown.
The death penalty should not be used by any nation as an instrument of revenge. The weakness of arguments to support its continuing application by some nations, including as a deterrent, lead the authors to conclude that no argument can justify the inhumanity of the penalty; it cannot be applied fairly, without mistakes; it is arbitrary and cruel.
Since the publication of the first edition of The Death Penalty the authors report progress: 41 countries abolished the death penalty from 1989 to 1999 – 40 for all crimes in all circumstances. Yet 39 nations, including the world’s two largest economies, China and the United States, remain “active retentionists” – executing at least one person within the last 10 years. The authors claim that China accounts for at least 80 percent of all recorded judicial executions, and Amnesty International has ceased publishing China’s death penalty statistics, which are regarded as state secrets.
The authors characterize Western Europe and Australasia as death-penalty-free zones, and attribute the origins of more humane ways of punishment to the liberal utilitarian and humanistic ideas sweeping through Europe at the end of the 18th century. Norway abolished capital punishment in 1905, and following the mass murder of 69 youth in 2011, support for the death penalty remained at 16 percent.
Support for the death penalty in North America is faltering as a result of innocent individuals being executed for crimes they did not commit. As the authors point out, the globe knows more about the situation in North America because of the extent of empirical studies and debates undertaken in that nation.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia provides an example of a leader who has resisted pressure from public opinion to restore the death penalty and committed to uphold a moratorium. In 2002 he regarded calls for its restoration from the State Duma as “foolish” – this despite a homicide rate more than twice that of the United States.
No consistent transnational consensus exists on what crimes are serious enough to deserve punishment by death. UN Special Rappourteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston compiled a list of crimes in 2007 that should not be accepted as “most serious,” including adultery, drug-related offenses, homosexual acts, illicit sex, theft or robbery by force and political offenses.
Indonesia has protested the penalty applied against its citizens overseas and in 2011 set up a taskforce to protect Indonesian migrant workers, mainly women working as maids in Saudi Arabia, facing the death penalty overseas. Using public funds for the payment of “blood money,” the government claims that it has removed 110 Indonesians out of 200 on death row in other countries.
Methods for the death penalty highlight the arbitrariness of this form of punishment. In 1999 the hanging of a Ugandan man failed twice; prison staff then bashed him to death with a hammer. Pancuronium bromide is used for lethal injections for humans in 30 US death-penalty states that have banned it for euthanizing animals.
Many families of murder victims also support the abolition of death penalty and provide inspiration to those who agree with Cesare Beccaria’s 1764 comment, quoted by the authors: “The death penalty is not useful because of the example of savagery it gives to men…” Families of murder victims have formed several organizations that work for the abolition of the death penalty under the common slogan, “Not in our name.”
The least accessible chapter for general readers may be the one on arguments used by “active retentionist” countries – that the penalty acts as deterrence to serious crime – because it requires an understanding of statistical methods. The authors investigate the difficulties of measuring the deterrent effect and raise methodological problems such as whether any theory of rational choice can be applied to those planning a capital crime. Graphs and tables offering comparisons among nations partly make up for the difficulties.
Public opinion on the use of capital punishment influences national policies, and the authors argue that those who make public policy should be ahead of public opinion, not followers. The March 2015 Utah decision to reinstate firing squads because of European supplier boycotts of lethal drugs and moral pressure may prove an exception to the authors’ argument for the leadership role of public policy. Utah also goes against the national trend in the US where six states have abolished the death penalty since 2007.
The authors conclude by responding to the challenge of finding suitable alternatives to the death penalty. They characterize lifelong incarceration of a person with no prospect of parole as a life of no hope or dignity and argue that all cases should be reviewed regularly. For example, in Finland a person sentenced to imprisonment for murder can appeal for release after 12 years and annually thereafter.
The Death Penalty offers new information even for readers who have read widely on the topic. The educational book aids further research and commitment to the worldwide abolition of the death penalty.
Leila Toiviainen grew up in Finland, trained as a nurse and midwife in England and received her PhD in philosophy from the University of Tasmania where she has worked for decades. Her work is mainly in bioethics, particularly on issues related to the ethical care of older persons.