Sunday, December 30, 2007

Death Knell for the Death Penalty?

According to Foreign Policy's latest "web exclusive":

"Its critics call the practice barbaric. The United Nations General Assembly is voting to outlaw it. Yet, a closer look at the death penalty—and the countries that still use it—reveals that it’s far too early to pronounce a death sentence against capital punishment just yet."
When I first read this sentence I was eager to peruse the article, which I assumed would be a carefully-thought-out defense of capital punishment on empirical grounds. However, the sole evidence for this statement is to list a number of countries who have no intention of abolishing the death penalty including China, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the United States. These are compared according to the number of people executed annually as well as the type of crimes.

So, the claim seems to be not that the death penalty shouldn’t be abolished, but that steps in the direction of total abolition are empirically insignificant since these five countries, among others, are definitely not on board.

I beg to differ. Many important advances in human rights law took place without the involvement of a few renegade countries, and almost all took place without US ratification. Secondly, for the practice to actually be abolished in 189 governments of the world would constitute an unprecedented historical shift, even if certain holdouts took longer to come around to the newest standard of “civilization.”

Indeed, the campaign to abolish the death penalty may affect the incidence or nature of the practice among pro-death-penalty states. For example, while the US insists on the right to execute its criminals, it continues to attempt to humanize the means by which this is done. As for China, Foreign Policy acknowledges that executions have declined by 40% since Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympics.

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