Abolishing the death penalty: progress despite challenges

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If only I could be in Oslo right now.

I had not paid much attention to the issue until May this year, when Kho Jabing’s execution gained a lot of attention in Singapore. This lead to some research and moral analysis up to and beyond his execution on 20 May 2016, which took place at Changi Prison just a few kilometres from my own front door.

Aside from blogging about reasons why I feel the death penalty should be abolished, it would have been rewarding to support the abolition movement by attending the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty with the theme, “Uniting the voices”.

The Congress kicked off yesterday, the 21st of June at Oslo’s Opera House. It will conclude on the 23rd of June followed by a march through the streets of Oslo.

Uniting the voices of abolitionists is a worthy cause and I wish the congress every possible success. Once the abolitionists’ voices are united their message should become louder and hopefully more effective.

Whilst uniting the voices of the abolitionists, during the congress it would be useful to have at least one speaker who is in favour of the death penalty for the sake of a balanced debate and exchange of perspectives, opposing as they may be.

This would provide the opportunity for the abolitionists to challenge and shatter whatever arguments such a speaker might choose to present.

Good news on the abolition front

The congress material provides a lot of useful and encouraging information. There is room for some optimism.

With 140 countries and territories having abolished the death penalty in law or practice, and a decreasing number of countries carrying out executions, abolition appears to be a universal trend.

Since the World Congress in Madrid in 2013, a number of victories have been claimed in the fight for abolition, and many retentionist countries have either abolished the death penalty in practice, or have restricted its use to certain crimes or certain categories of people.

Four countries in particular should be commended for putting an end to the death penalty over the course of 2015:

  • The Republic of the Congo,
  • Fiji,
  • Madagascar, and
  • Surinam.

Playing the terrorism card

Sadly, however, over the past ten years, many countries have passed counter-terrorism laws which expand the scope of the death penalty.

Recently, Pakistan, Jordan, and Chad resumed executions under the banner of the fight against terrorism, revoking a moratorium which had been in place for years.

A new record: The death toll by executions

In 2015, at least 1,634 prisoners were executed across 25 countries, and 1,998 people were sentenced to death across 61 countries, a record for the past 25 years.

In that landscape, the advance of the abolitionist trend still encounters great resistance across Asia and the Arab world.

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran were responsible for 89% of recorded executions in 2015. Those figures don’t take China into account, where information pertaining to the death penalty is classified as State secret.

Spotlight on Asia

Particular attention was given to Southeast Asia in 2015, and the Regional Congress Against the Death Penalty was held in Malaysia. To ensure a follow-up, Asia is given a prominent place during the World Congress, with a plenary session dedicated to the progress and setbacks of the cause on the Asian continent.

The pro-death movement

In countries where the death penalty is abolished in law, abolition is regularly called into question by pro-death penalty movements. Citizens and human rights organisations fighting against the death penalty often face huge political, legal, and religious barriers.

The support from National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) in the abolitionist struggle is therefore crucial and must be accentuated to achieve sustainable goals. That is why a second plenary session will be dedicated to them during the Oslo congress.

Mongolia as a role model

Abolitionists, standing united, must now hope that the march forward, which was halted in 2015, can kick on stronger than ever. 2016 looks promising: rumours of abolition are emanating from Guinea and Burkina Faso. Mongolia has just made abolition official after its Parliament voted an amendment to its Penal Code.

Even though I cannot join the movement in Oslo, I appreciate the efforts of all involved with the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, and wish it every success in generating new impetus to the movement and continuing the journey towards universal abolition!

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