As the 13th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice continued its work in Doha, Qatar today, high-level UN, academic and Government experts at a panel discussion on death penalty advocated moving away from the punishment as there is no empirical evidence that it deters crime.
“Over the lifetime of the United Nations, the balance has shifted, and today, more than 160 Member States have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it”, said UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Ivan Šimonović, who moderated the discussion.
“Despite these positive developments, however, a number of States continue to impose the death penalty,” he told the panel, one of the many events taking place during the UN Crime Congress, which opened Sunday and is expected to conclude on 19 April.
The participants at the panel included the Minister of Justice of Italy, Andrea Orlando, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, the Deputy Director in Penal Reform International in charge of regional Middle East and North Africa office, Haitham Shibli, a non-governmental organization working on penal and criminal justice reform, and Jeffrey Fagan, Professor at Columbia Law School in New York.
Mr. Šimonović stressed that Amnesty International noted in a recent report on global sentences and executions that in 2014 there were fewer registered executions but there was an increase of people condemned to death.
“The spread of drug trafficking and terrorism is an important factor for many States when considering to retain or even reintroduce the death penalty,” he added, noting that China, Iran, Viet Nam, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Malaysia have the highest rate of executions for drug trafficking.
The event, organized with Italy, provided the opportunity to present a publication by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Moving away from the Death Penalty, Arguments, Trends and Perspectives. The book, launched at UN Headquarters in October 2014, has been translated into Arabic and will be available soon, said Mr. Šimonović.
“The world is certainly moving away from the death penalty, in just the way the world moved away from slavery, from judicial torture and from other such practices”, Mr. Heyns said, recalling that in 1948, only eight States had taken the death penalty out of their laws.
“Now, 99 have done so,” he said, adding that only five States now execute more than 25 people a year – China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United States.
The Special Rapporteur stressed that “the most important consideration coming into play over the last seven years is that it is not clear that the death penalty has any special deterrence value. In fact, there is no evidence to that effect.”
“The death penalty creates a false sense of security,” he continued, underscoring that the punishment will not solve the problem of criminal activity and that countries should rather focus on better policing and addressing underlying causes.
Mr. Heyns said that there has been a “shift” regarding death penalty. “It seems that it is a matter of decades before there will be a situation where it is very likely that very few States will still have the death penalty officially in their books.”
Regarding the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Shibli stressed the use of death penalty on a very wide and vague scope in the region.
He took the examples of Yemen, where there are more than 360 crimes punishable by death penalty, Morocco where there are more than 325, and Egypt with more than 40.
“It is widely used in the criminal law as a punishment in the region,” Mr. Shibli said. “Generally in the region now, especially after the political instability, the governments feel more at ease in using the death penalty.”
Mr. Fagan discussed the situation in the United States, where capital punishment is a legal sentence in more than 30 states. He pointed out empirical research that shows that “there is no evidence that death penalty has any greater deterrent effect than would other punishments.”
“Deterrence is one of the essential justifications. Without that justification, I think there is a constitutional issue,” he added.
He said that because of that evidence, things are changing in the United States. “There is a deep change in the American society in respect to the beliefs about the death penalty,” he concluded.