Why a world day against the death penalty?


First and foremost, because the fight against the death penalty is one of the major battles for human rights, such as the fight to abolish slavery or torture.

It is also a fight in which, every year, the abolitionists are gradually gaining ground over the retentionists (countries that retain and apply the death penalty).

Today, two thirds of the countries represented in the United Nations (UN) have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. Only 58 retain and apply the death penalty. Thirty years ago, the situation was exactly the opposite, with abolitionist countries representing a minority.

The death penalty, more than ever before, is the symbol of the fight of reason against ignorance, the force of right against the right to force, the fight against all inequalities and injustices, be they racial, ethnic or religious and, ultimately, always social.

It is also a weapon for the oppression of peoples, who are made to believe that they will receive justice, when capital punishment is, in fact, often no more than the long arm of tyranny.

“But democracies,” you may tell me “also deliver and execute the death penalty.”

I grant you that, but it may surprise you to know that an ever-diminishing number is applying the death penalty.

Indeed, any democratic process inevitably goes hand in hand with a progressive or even a radical break with the practices of the past, from the time of the dictators and oppressors. Such was the case, for example, in South America in the 1990s, after the military dictatorships (the whole of Latin America has now abolished capital punishment), or post-Soviet Europe (Belarus is the last retentionist state).

It is not without reason that the peoples of the world who have suffered genocides – Armenia, Israel, Cambodia and Rwanda – have nonetheless all had the strength and felt duty-bound to abolish the death penalty. The same is true of the highest international jurisdictions, the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Crimes Tribunals (ICT), despite their having to try the perpetrators of the world’s most serious crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.

A few democracies still use capital punishment: the United States, Japan and India, for example. Most of them, however, only now use it on rare occasions.

Even in the United States, things are moving forward. In 1999, there were 98 executions, compared with 35 in 2014, in eight states, and 22 executions in 2015 (figure as at 1 October), in six states.

The fall both in the number of executions and death sentences, as well as in the number of retentionist states, is the beginning of a gradual end to the implementation of the death penalty in the U.S. and most likely heralds its official abolition in the coming years.


Drug trafficking and the death penalty

Today, the fight for the abolition of the death penalty is above all centred on the Middle East (particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran) and Asia.

Saudi Arabia, with more than 150 executions in 2015, has already surpassed the figures for last year. Since President Hassan Rouhani took office in Iran, the number of executions has doubled.

The injustices are many and routine. Ali Mohamed Al-Nimr comes to mind: a young man condemned to death in a mock trial, even though he was a minor, for having demonstrated against the royal family and for belonging to the country’s Shia minority.

Mahmood Barati also comes to mind: a teacher in the city of Taybad, in Iran, who was executed for drug trafficking on 8 September, following an unfair trial in which he was sentenced based on the testimony of another person accused of drug trafficking, who was also subsequently executed, and who had retracted his testimony before the courts on two occasions.

The link between drug trafficking and the death sentence is, precisely, at the heart of the World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10 October 2015. Understanding the issues around this theme is crucial, given the breadth of the implications in terms of human rights, as well as at public and international policy level.

Most of the countries with the world’s highest execution rates issue the death sentence to people involved in drug trafficking (be they “hard” or “soft” drugs); that is, 32 countries (plus Gaza).

There has, in fact, been a sharp rise in executions for drug-related crimes in seven countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

These executions are ordered in total contravention of international human rights standards, whereby the death penalty should only apply to the most serious crimes, such as intentional homicide. In most cases, the executions do not correspond to such crimes.

The death penalty, moreover, is used both as an electoral and a diplomatic tool. Since the 1980s, we have, in fact, been witnessing a – totally legitimate – international campaign termed the War on Drugs. This policy is being led, at international level, by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which is sponsoring extensive programmes to fight drugs.

Applying the death sentence is, for some, the “only visible way” of showing that governments are taking action.

Retentionist states use this international campaign (and the millions of dollars that go with it) to execute small drug dealers, couriers or “mules”, which account for the vast majority of the prisoners executed. They are often foreigners, people in vulnerable situations. Women (sometimes pregnant) are often used to smuggle drugs across borders, as customs officers are generally less suspicious of them.

Cooperation in the fight against drugs often leads to European diplomacy finding itself involved in absurd situations and aberrations. Australia, the United Kingdom and France, for example, help the Vietnamese or Indonesian police to arrest drug trafficking suspects, at the same time as fighting tooth and nail against the execution of their own nationals, often after assisting with their detention.

Examples such as Serge Atlaoui, a French national who was almost executed in Indonesia, and the other foreign nationals executed by firing squad on 29 April 2015 speak volumes. These policies are used locally to justify the lack of a national health policy and their lack of long-term vision.

It is essential that European governments interact with the UNODC to stop this worrying rise in drug-related executions and with a view, in the long run, to ensuring the abolition of the death penalty for all crimes.