The Slow Decline Of The Death Penalty Continues

Abdullah al-Qahtani, a Saudi Arabian national, faces imminent execution in Iraq - a sentence based on “confessions” he says were false and obtained through torture.  His story is a perfect illustration of why the death penalty is the ultimate violation of human rights; how ceding to the state the power to kill prisoners is connected to unfair trials, torture, and other abuses.

As Amnesty International’s survey of the death penalty worldwide in 2012 reports, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are both among the top executioners in the world, along with China, Iran, and, yes, the United States. The U.S. was once again the 5th most prolific executioner in 2012, and its death penalty continued to be plagued with bias and error and misconduct by the state (as has been exposed in the Reggie Clemons case).

With 15 executions in 2012, Texas would have ranked 8th in the world, between Sudan and Afghanistan.

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U.S. in Top 5 For Executions Worldwide

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First, the good news.  In 1961, the year Amnesty International was founded, only 9 countries had completely abolished the death penalty (10 if you count West Germany).  By 1977, the year Amnesty International simultaneously won the Nobel Peace Prize and took up death penalty abolition as a priority human rights cause, there were still only 16 such countries (plus West Germany).

Since then, there has been a sea change.  As documented in Amnesty International’s new report on Death Sentences and Executions in 2010, 96 countries have fully abolished capital punishment, while only 58 actively retain it (and only 23 carried out executions in 2010).  The remaining 43 nations have the death penalty on the books, but do not really use it.  So, basically, more than two-thirds of the world’s countries are living without the death penalty. (And thanks to Illinois, so are almost one-third of U.S. states.)

But 1977 was also the year that the United States resumed executions after a ten-year hiatus. During the next couple of decades, while most of the rest of the world was beginning to see the death penalty as a fundamental violation of human rights, the U.S. was pursuing executions in greater and greater numbers.  And while executions and death sentences have declined significantly in the U.S. over the last decade, the use of capital punishment has been collapsing at a much faster rate worldwide, so that in 2010, once again, the U.S. ranked in the top 5 of the world’s most prolific executioners.

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A Healthy Justice System

As Amnesty International reported yesterday the African nation of Togo became the 94th country in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, and the 15th member of the African Union to do so.
In announcing his government’s plans to push for full repeal of capital punishment at the end of last year, Justice Minister Kokou Tozoun was clear and direct:

“This country has chosen to establish a healthy justice system that limits judicial errors…and guarantees the inherent rights of the individual.  This (new) system is no longer compatible with a penal code that maintains the death penalty and grants the judiciary absolute power with irrevocable consequences.”

The vote for repeal, which passed unanimously in the Togo national assembly, is the latest act in the gradual but unmistakable trend towards worldwide abolition of the death penalty. Though only dimly visible in the U.S., where support for capital punishment is shrinking more slowly, this trend is very clear on a global scale, and it is particularly apparent in Africa. Burundi repealed the death penalty earlier this year, and Mali is reportedly considering abolition as well.