World Day on October 10 marks the date when activists around the world rally to oppose the death penalty and commemorate the day with educational events, demonstrations, and other initiatives to voice their opposition to this human rights violation.
We were creating this poster at the request of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (www.worldcoalition.org), an international coalition that opposes the death penalty. The World Coalition spearheads World Day, along with many other campaigns, in its efforts to end the death penalty around the world. This October 10, 2012 is particularly special, because it marks the tenth anniversary of the creation of the World Coalition.
The poster would be a pivotal piece in the World Day campaign as the rallying symbol for hundreds of death penalty activists around the world. Our main challenge was that the World Coalition’s Steering Committee specifically requested a positivemessage in the poster. But how to convey a positive image about the execution of people and the end of human life? There’s nothing innately positive about the death penalty– images typically used to portray capital punishment are morbid: nooses, syringes, knives, stones, and execution chambers. Not exactly the ingredients for positive messaging.
Fortunately, the World Coalition suggested we focus on progress made over the past ten years—and there’s much to celebrate in this regard. The World Coalition has grown from a fledgling initiative to an independent organization composed of almost 140 members from around the world. Member organizations hail from numerous countries, such as Morocco, France, Iran, Lebanon, Taiwan, Japan, Puerto Rico, India, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, UK, Nigeria, and of course, the United States. As The Advocates’ representative on the World Coalition’s Steering Committee I have been privileged to meet and work with an inspiring group of individuals from all over the world.
The work of the World Coalition and other abolitionists has had a big impact. Today, 141 countries are abolitionist in law or in practice (97 countries have passed laws that have eliminate the death penalty, and 36 countries have not legally abolished the death penalty but have not used it in years). A glance at some of the countries that have abolished the death penalty in the past ten years shows the trend is global and reaches all corners of the world: Albania, Argentina, Armenia, Bhutan, Burundi, Cook Islands, Gabon, Greece, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Mexico, the Philippines, Rwanda, Samoa, Senegal, Togo, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. Some countries that have not abolished the Death Penalty have signified their strong disinterest in continuing the practice: Sierra Leone and Nigeria have declared a moratorium on executions and Tajikistan has had a moratorium on both death sentences and executions since 2004. Finally, eight countries have restricted the scope of their death penalty and abolished its use for ordinary crimes.
Even in the United States, where the use of the death penalty is one of the gravest human rights violations, we’ve seen a demonstrable shift by states toward rejection of the death penalty. In April 2012, Connecticut became the 17th State to abolish the death penalty, closely following Illinois in 2011, New Mexico in 2009, and New Jersey in 2007. California will be putting the vote to the people when the death penalty is up for referendum this November—a recognition that public support is waning.
Indeed, looking at these facts and figures, the progress is astonishing. It is clear: the global trend is countries moving away from using the death penalty.
Thinking about the death penalty in light of these developments was inspiring for Cuong and me as we sought to portray this message. W hile we still face dire problems with capital punishment here in the United States and elsewhere, the world overall is shifting toward abolition. It’s a positive sign and one that we can truly celebrate.
Given this insight, we decided on the simple image of the world atop a broken noose. We finished it with an inspiring message to capture our past progress and the brighter future we all face: Abolish the death penalty. It’s a better world without it.
The worldwide trend towards abolition: progress of the past 10 years
The last decade has seen a large increase in the number of countries that have officially abolished the death penalty or eliminated the use of the death penalty in practice:
• 141 countries are abolitionist in law or in practice;
• 97 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes;
• 36 countries have abolished the death penalty in practice;
• 8 countries have abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
According to Amnesty International, 21 countries recorded executions in 2011, compared to 31 countries 10 years ago. Even the USA, one of the worst offenders in the use of the death penalty, has shown progress as individual states have abolished or limited the death penalty.
Many other countries have also abolished the death penalty in the past decade, including: Albania, Argentina, Armenia, Bhutan, Burundi, Cook Islands, Gabon, Greece, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Mexico, the Philippines, Rwanda, Samoa, Senegal, Togo, Turkey and Uzbekistan.
Several countries that have not legally abolished the death penalty have at least ended it in practice, either by declaring an official moratorium or by not carrying out executions. For example, Sierra Leone and Nigeria have declared a moratorium on executions, and Tajikistan has had a moratorium on both death sentences and executions since 2004.
Many countries that have not yet abolished or imposed a moratorium have taken steps to narrow the scope of the death penalty. Kazakhstan has abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes. China recently eliminated the death penalty for certain economic crimes, and it has reintroduced mandatory review of all death penalty cases by the Supreme People’s Court.
Over the last decade, several retentionist countries have implemented many of the universal international safeguards on their application of the death penalty and have eliminated that punishment for certain categories of persons. For example:
• Persons suffering from intellectual disabilities: in 2003, the US Supreme Court prohibited the execution of people with intellectual disabilities.
• Persons suffering from mental illness: Thailand has ceased using the death penalty against persons suffering from mental disorders.
• Juveniles: while a few countries, including Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen, have sentenced juvenile offenders to death, Iran was the only country in 2010 and 2011 to still execute those under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed. In a promising move, in May 2011, Sudan accepted the UN Human Rights Council recommendations that it would not apply the death penalty against juvenile offenders.
• Pregnant women: In 2003, Uganda stated a death sentence cannot be imposed on a pregnant woman, and she will receive a sentence of life imprisonment instead.
Focus forward: challenges ahead in the next 10 years
Some countries have expanded, or attempted to expand, the scope of the death penalty over the last decade to include:
• Drugs: 32 countries or territories still have laws imposing the death penalty for drug offences. Drug offenders make up the majority of those condemned to die in many retentionist countries.
• Homosexuality: some countries, including Liberia and Uganda, have launched efforts to impose the death penalty for acts of homosexuality.
• Terrorism: some countries are adopting or amending laws for terrorist crimes or against those supporting terrorist acts – not necessarily lethal ones. Syria imposed the death penalty for those arming terrorists in December 2011. Bangladesh, India and Nigeria have also adopted laws expanding the scope of the death penalty by including terrorist acts among the offenses punishable by death.
Certain countries have resumed their use of the death penalty. Afghanistan, Taiwan, Equatorial Guinea, the United Arab Emirates and Japan have resumed executions after a hiatus, in stark contrast with the global trend of abolition.
Finally, countries such as China and Iran continue to carry out their executions in secrecy, contrary to fundamental notions that such information should be made available to the public. Moreover, transparency is critical to prevent errors or abuses and safeguard fairness.
Further work to eradicate the death penalty
On a global scale, further work needs to be done to build on the foundation of abolition thus far by focusing on the following goals:
• Promote national legislation abolishing the death penalty.
• Increase ratifications of the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.
• Support international standards calling for the abolition or restricted use of the death penalty.
• Support adoption of the 2012 UN General Assembly Resolution on a moratorium: in December 2012, the UN General Assembly will vote on a fourth resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.