“The death penalty has no place in the 21st century”, declared UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon in 2014, calling on all countries to abolish this practice. Ironically, Amnesty International recorded the highest number of executions since 1989 the following year – 2015 saw the execution of 1,634 individuals. Still, general progress towards worldwide abolition is being made, with four more countries abolishing the death penalty in 2015, and one in the first half of 2016. In total, the number of countries that were either fully abolitionist, that is, had legal provision against capital punishment in all cases, or abolitionist in practice, that is, had not executed anyone over the course of 10 years and “are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions”, increased from 122 to 140 between 2005 and 2016.
The wide variety of both value- and fact-based arguments against capital punishment, however, appear to have resonated to a lesser extent with Commonwealth countries. While a number of the latter have already abolished the death penalty for all crimes, the overall future of capital punishment is not as certain in Commonwealth countries as it appears to be elsewhere. In the last decade, only three further members (Rwanda, Fiji, and Nauru) have abolished the death penalty, bringing the total number of Commonwealth abolitionists to 19. Compared to the 103 countries (worldwide) that have formally abolished the death penalty for all crimes, however, the share of fully abolitionist countries remains almost 45% lower within the Commonwealth than outside of it.
Certainly, the developments in Rwanda, Fiji, and Nauru mark a clear step in the direction of Commonwealth-wide abolitionism. Yet, opposite developments are taking place elsewhere: While the then UK Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed in 2011 that the Commonwealth was “keen to help any countries that retain the death penalty move towards abolition”, politicians in Papua New Guinea and the Maldives are discussing a reintroduction of capital punishment. Additionally, members-states Bangladesh and Pakistan still have some of the highest execution-rates worldwide, and have come under critical international scrutiny for this.
Overall, then, a wide range of policies and legislations concerning capital punishment are employed in Commonwealth countries. Apart from the outspoken abolitionists, 14 member states are abolitionist in practice, and 20 are retentionist. Support for capital punishment evidently varies per country, though there is a notably higher concentration of retentionist states in the Americas and the Caribbean, and Asia. Of course, there is no international prohibition of death penalty, and a sovereign country is – at least technically – free to decide whether or not, and to what degree, to institute this practice. Yet, in an organisation such as the Commonwealth, which strives to appear united, this discord is striking. Considering especially the largely similar legal systems in member-countries, and a tradition of sharing best practice, it seems only reasonable to expect a Commonwealth consensus on capital punishment.
Not only is the need for consensus clear, its content is equally apparent: After all, continually presenting itself as a values-driven organisation, the Commonwealth has been quite outspoken about its commitment to human rights, human dignity, justice and non-discrimination (most recently in the Commonwealth Charter of 2012). As long as the death penalty remains legal, however, none of these key values can be pursued genuinely. First, the mere possibility for an individual to be sentenced to death is the ultimate denial of the right to life as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a right that is based simply and forcefully on the essential fact of equal and non-alienable human dignity. Moreover, capital punishment fundamentally and irreversibly destroys any possibility for the rehabilitation of the alleged criminal. Equating justice with retribution (or even revenge as is the case when a murderers’ execution is justified with the ‘eye for an eye’ logic), however, is not exactly a contemporary stance on justice. Today, we tend to value punishment accompanied by a genuine possibility for rehabilitation much higher. Lastly, various studies have found that capital punishment is frequently used in a discriminatory way – racial and ethnic minorities, men, and practitioners of non-dominant religions, for example, are more likely to be sentenced to death and executed.
Having established that there exists a need for the Commonwealth to formulate a consensus on the goal of formal abolition of capital punishment, the organisation must now serve as a platform for dialogue and best practice sharing in order to encourage members to communicate on an equal and empowered basis so as to learn from each other. This process is certainly challenging as it requires time and strong leadership. Yet it is also an opportunity for the Commonwealth to once again use the strength that lies in its diversity to consensually and collectively promote, encourage, and work towards abolitionism.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Commonwealth Society