Today, 10 October, is the World Day Against the Death Penalty. 141 countries, more than ever before, have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, and to me, that’s certainly a cause for celebration.
But today is also a day to be reminded that more than 1,000 people were executed in 23 countries last year. The number is likely much higher, as we don’t have any reliable figures for the total number of executions in China, which is considered the world’s most prolific executor.
This year, organisations fighting for universal abolition of the death penalty highlight one of its many sad truths: the undeniable link to poverty. In most of the 57 countries that uphold the death penalty and use it, death sentences are far more likely to be imposed on those who lack the means to pay for effective legal counsel or who lack the kinds of social and economic ties that help to avert capital charges in the first place. This is perhaps most evident in the US, where study after study has shown that minorities and the poor are disproportionately represented among the more than 2,800 men and women populating death rows across the country.
As has been said many times “the definition of capital punishment is that those without the capital get the punishment.” And criminal justice champion Bryan Stevenson put it most succinctly in his book Just Mercy: “My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” To be clear, poverty creates negative impacts along a person’s entire journey through the justice system, from the moment of arrest to the appeals process following sentencing. It’s a vicious, deadly cycle.
Even if you disagree with my fundamental moral opposition to the death penalty, you’ll have to agree that a system that puts a price tag on justice is a broken system. If a Western democracy as deeply rooted in the principles of civil liberty, equal justice and equal opportunity as the US cannot create sufficient safeguards to prevent frequent injustice, how much worse must the situation be in countries where the rule of law and the basic idea of fairness are not respected at all? As we observe a dangerous slide into illiberalism and authoritarianism around the world, with countries like Turkey, the Philippines and the Maldives openly discussing reintroduction of the death penalty, I worry what that may mean for global abolition efforts.
I am especially concerned for the fate of those languishing in jail cells, moving closer to their execution day by day. The fact that the US government, during the most recent session of the UN Human Rights Council, couldn’t muster up the political will support a resolution that, among other things, condemned the imposition of the death penalty for LGBT people, is very disconcerting.
Perhaps more than ever, the cause of abolition requires each of us to move and take action. The death penalty is inhumane and barbaric. It is also deeply flawed and unjust. Let’s consign it to the history books for good.
Head over to the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty to get all the facts and learn how you can engage.