THE DEATH PENALTY AND HUMAN DIGNITY
By René Wadlow
October 10 is the International Day against the Death Penalty. Since the end of World War II, there has been a gradual abolition of the death penalty due to the rather obvious recognition that putting a person to death is not justice. Moreover, on practical grounds, the death penalty has little impact on the rate of crime in a country. A number of States have a death penalty for those involved in the drug trade. To the extent that the drug trade can be estimated statistically, the death penalty has no measurable impact on the trade − a trade usually linked to economic or geopolitical factors.
October 10 can also be a day to oppose all organized killings by State agents. In addition to State-sponsored official executions, usually carried out publicly or at least with official observers, a good number of countries have State-sponsored “death squads” − persons affiliated to the police or to intelligence agencies who kill “in the dark of the night” − unofficially. These deaths avoid a trial which might attract attention or even a “not guilty” decision. A shot in the back of the head is faster. The number of “targeted killings” has grown. In many cases, the bodies of those killed are destroyed and so death is supposed but not proved, as has been the case of students protesting in Mexico. United States assassinations with drones has also been highlighted both in the United Nations human rights bodies and domestically. However, the drone “strikes” continue, and there is very little legislative opposition.
A good deal of recent concern has been expressed on the death sentence in Saudi Arabia pronounced against Ali al-Nimr found guilty “of going out to a number of marches, demonstrations, and gatherings against the state and repeating some chants against the state” when he was 15 years old. He is to die by crucifixion. There is perhaps some chance of a change of penalty due to more historically-minded Saudis. The most widely known person crucified is Jesus. As the Roman count records have been lost, we have only the account written by his friends who stressed that he was innocent of the crimes for which he was condemned. His crucifixion has taken on cosmic dimensions. “Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?” The Saudis try to avoid some of the Jesus parallel by beheading the person before putting the rest of the body on the cross, but the image of the crucified as innocent is wide spread.
In the 1970s French singer Julien Clerc sang “L’assassin assassiné”, “The Assassinated Assassin”, a resounding plea for the abolition of the death penalty. When France did abolish capital punishment in 1981, then Justice Minister Robert Badinter said the song had done even more for the removal of the death penalty than his own speech before the French National Assembly.
October 10 is an occasion for us to stress the importance of human dignity. Our efforts against executions need to be addressed both to governments and to those state-like nongovernmental armed groups such as ISIS/Daesh in Syria and Iraq. The abolition of executions and the corresponding valuation of human life are necessary steps in developing a just world society.
Prof. René Wadlow is President of a Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.