“Long live death!” is how Franco’s militias sometimes celebrated their victories during the 1930s Spanish civil war. Yes, there have always been – and remain – those states that champion death over life, barbarism over reason. And what better symbol of this outmoded ideology than the death penalty? As you read this, 58 states around the globe – both developed and developing, democracies and dictatorships – continue to legally condemn their citizens to death. In 2012, twenty one of these states acted out this power to kill. Just as the highest contempt that is held for a murderer is based on their taking from their victim that which is most precious, these states violate the most fundamental and cherished right held by their subjects: the right to life.
That some individuals do not respect this right is unacceptable: States must condemn murderers and prevent criminality. But in doing so, they must not reproduce the killing, must not submit to bloodlust – as the killer did. Indeed, just and modern societies cannot be founded on death ideology: the dispensation of justice as an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.
This point is crucial. It lies at the core of abolitionist arguments, which are philosophical as well as legal. Our societies must look up and distance themselves from the bitter cruelty of vengeance. An eye for an eye, as the old saying goes, makes the whole world go blind – and this, at a time when justice demands sight. What message does a state send its people when its judges sanction by killing, when prisons become places to die, when those who can don’t grant clemency? What more violence, what clearer sign of weakness is there, than an authority compelled to kill its own subjects?
Indeed, the act of execution is always violent and inhumane. Hanged in Japan and Iran, death-sentence prisoners in the United States and China are lethally injected. Far from being a mere clinical act, this latter modus operandi can often lead to a cruel and painful death. In fact, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has included executions in his mandate.
And alongside these compelling points lies the fact that death sentencing is overwhelmingly unfair and ineffective. No justice system on the globe is spared the possibility of judicial error or iniquitous trials, and not all death-sentence prisoners can afford a proper defence. Moreover, there is no evidence to support that the death penalty reduces the number of murders or violent acts perpetrated in a given society.
But let us take it for granted that a murderer acknowledges his or her crime; let us assume that official investigations prove their guilt beyond all possible doubt: is death really their “just deserts”? We would suggest that the answer can only be no. Our societies already have, and must show, a creative capacity to develop penal sanctions beyond execution. In 1981, when France abolished the death penalty, over 150 countries maintained such sentencing and carried it out. Today, only 21 such states remain. In the past five years, Uzbekistan, Argentina, Burundi, Togo, Gabon and Latvia have rid themselves of capital punishment. Civil society mobilisation is bearing fruit. Abolition will soon be universal.
Florence Bellivier is President of the World Coalition Against Death Penalty; Karim Lahidji is FIDH President; and Robert Badinter is former French Justice Minister