The Death Penalty Is Having Quite a Moment — And That May Help Efforts to Abolish It

The confluence of debates about the death penalty around the world shows the degree to which it's persevered even as most countries have eliminated it as a punishment.


On Wednesday, an Indonesian firing squad executed eight convicted drug smugglers from Australia, Nigeria, Brazil, and Indonesia, in a decision that stirred global anger and caused Australia to say it will withdraw its ambassador from Jakarta.

The same day, Washington time, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether Oklahoma executions by lethal injection amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.” Death row inmates launched the case after states persisted with executions in the face of manufacturers’ refusal to supply approved sedatives last year — leading to three botched executions that left the sentenced men in apparently great pain.

Also on Wednesday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban proposed reinstating his country’s death penalty — abolished in 1990 in line with a European Union prohibition — following the deadly stabbing of a young tobacco store clerk last week.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts a jury is currently deliberating whether Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves the death penalty. Despite the strong emotions around the bombings, which killed three and injured more than 260 in 2013, polls show most Bostonians don’t want Tsarnaev killed.

This confluence of events shows the degree to which debate over the death penalty has persisted even as most countries have eliminated it as a punishment. Europe, Africa, and most of the Americas have banned the practice, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said repeatedly that he believes “the death penalty has no place in the 21st century.”

But some countries — particularly in Asia — have recently ramped up death sentences and executions with the aim of cracking down on terrorism and other crimes. In December, for example, Pakistan ended a six-year moratorium on the death penalty after a Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar left more than 140 people dead. Earlier this year, in the wake of the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, far-right French politician Marine Le Pen also argued that the death penalty should be reinstated. Last week, the vice prime minister of Mauritius reportedly called for the country to reintroduce the punishment in response to several recent sexual assaults of children.

According to Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, an organization that campaigns vigorously against the death penalty, “There are times when a particularly heinous act happens, there will be calls by some members of government, as we’re seeing in Hungary, for reinstatement. But that tends to die down.” By and large, he said, “the momentum is toward abolition.”

Amnesty International’s annual report on the death penalty around the world, released last month, found that the number of countries carrying out executions fell from 41 in 1995 to 22 last year, while the number to have abolished the death penalty climbed from 59 to 98 in that time.

Hawkins said he hoped the international response to the Indonesian executions would encourage that trend. Many countries and institutions that support the death penalty say it should be reserved it for the “most serious,” themselves deadly, crimes — a classification that charges against the drug smugglers just executed in Indonesia by many accounts didn’t meet.

“What’s happened in Indonesia this week strikes all of humanity as repulsive, and it does help us in advocacy efforts with other states that continue to have the death penalty to see the logic in abolition, because no one wants to see their governments carrying out executions under such disproportionate standards,” Hawkins said. “It goes to show the illegitimacy of whole apparatus.”

Like the leaders of most other countries that currently execute people, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has claimed that his government’s latest executions were necessary to deter others, because his country is facing a drug crisis. But data compiled by organizations including the United Nations and Oxford University show the death penalty isn’t more effective at deterring criminals than, say, life in prison. United Nations tribunals established to try those commonly considered to have committed the most egregious international crimes — war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity — don’t allow for death sentences.

The hope for groups like Amnesty is that the current debates, with all corners of the world weighing in on a state’s right to take a person’s life, will bring their goal of a global death penalty ban a bit closer.

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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