The death penalty: for & against

By 2002, 111 of the 189 states of the United Nations Organisation had abolished the death penalty. These included all members of the European Union, Canada, Australia, as well as most of the countries in South America and several in Southern Africa. In the USA 38 states retained the death penalty while 12 had abolished it. The four countries which accounted for 90 % of all executions in 2001 were Saudi Arabia, China, the USA and Iran.

In most cases it was only after much debate that the death penalty was abolished. In England for example it was as a result of a judicial error which led to the wrong person being hanged. Opponents of abolition argued fiercely that the incidence of violent crimes would go up if the death penalty were abolished. In practice this turned out to be quite untrue: crimes that would call for capital punishment remained constant, even after abolition.

Those who uphold the death penalty often invoke the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ argument- that is, that one who takes a life should pay for it with his own, but opponents criticize this attitude as being barbaric and unworthy of modern society. The death penalty they say is as bad as murder; the only difference is that it is the state doing the killing…

“Every individual has the right to life.” So states article 3 of the UDHR. For human rights activists the death penalty is in direct contradiction with this article.

Some activists also question the role of society as an educator or an avenger. Indeed they believe that society should place more emphasis on re-educating criminals than punishing them the worst possible way. Waiting, sometimes for years, on death row can be seen as the most extreme form of torture and the act of execution as inhuman and degrading. For believers it is contrary to their religion as only God can give and take away life. It is true that a murderer once executed will never again be a danger to society and also that a murderer sentenced to prison for life is a burden to the state and therefore to taxpayers. But it is also true that judicial errors are still possible, even with the great progress made by forensic science nowadays and there is no reparation possible for the execution of an innocent person…

In addition there is a link between the death penalty and social inequality. Most death rows are filled with poor, uneducated people. In repressive or totalitarian regimes, capital punishment is usually the rule. It thus easily becomes part of the tactics of a dictator or a military government.

All in all, most people agree that there is no place for the death penalty in forward-looking countries.