The film Dead Man Walking says "it’s easy to kill a monster, but hard to kill a human being". Some argue that by virtue of our membership to the human race, we are protected by rights which can’t be displaced by laws of our particular countries. The right to life is the most fundamental of human rights. Does the application of the death penalty infringe upon this right?
What is the issue?
The death penalty (or capital punishment) is the legal execution of a prisoner as punishment for a crime. Modern methods of execution include the firing squad, lethal injection, stoning and the electric chair.
Who does it affect?
Six countries apply the death penalty to juveniles (those aged 18 or under). This is despite the fact that only the United States of America and Somalia have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which forbids capital punishment for juveniles.
It is easy to disregard the death penalty as an issue which only affects criminals convicted of serious crimes. However, the death penalty is a form of legal killing. It is sanctioned by the public through the acceptance of each country's laws. Even though Australia does not allow the death penalty, citizens who commit a crime in another country are subject to the laws of that country.
The execution of Melbourne man Van Tuong Nguyen in December 2005 under Singaporean law is an example of this. Polls conducted at that time showed public opinion was divided over the use of the death penalty but that many Australians were sympathetic to the death sentence in that particular case even though it had been abolished in Australia. On the flipside thousands mourned Nguyen’s death. Governments which have abolished the death penalty customarily condemn its use in other countries as a breach of fundamental human rights. However the Australian government did not do this in relation to the 2002 Bali bombings.
Where is it happening?
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has been ratified by 150 countries. It is the key global agreement on human rights issues. This means that 150 countries have agreed on the responsibilities in the document, however of these 150, only 50 have ratified the Second Optional Protocol that prohibits the death penalty. Australia is one of those 50. This means that the convention only binds 50 countries in relation to the death penalty. Although this agreement is an important step forward there are some significant holes in the umbrella of protection it affords.
Most western democratic countries (the most notable exception being the United States of America) have abolished the death penalty. A prerequisite to membership of the European Union and the Council of Europe is the abolition of the death penalty. Today 74 countries continue to use it.
Amnesty International estimated that in 2004, 3,704 executions took place in 25 countries. Of these, 9 out of 10 occurred in China. However, the real number can never be known with any certainty, with an estimate giving the number closer to 10,000 executions in China. The United Nations cites Singapore as the most prolific user of the death penalty per capita.
Why is it happening?
Crimes which can attract the death penalty include criminal offences such as murder and treason. The severity of the punishment acts as a reflection of how heinous a crime is. The problem is that the degree of seriousness with which we view a crime differs from country to country, and from person to person.
Related to this is the role of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. Many Asian countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam apply the death penalty to drug related crimes in an attempt to deter trafficking in the region. However, some studies show that criminals do not consider they will ever be caught. The degree of punishment does not stop them from committing the crime.
It has been argued that life imprisonment is sufficient to ensure the safety of citizens, even though there is a remote possibility of early release. Are we willing to accept responsibility for the death of a wrongly convicted person under the law?
How do I know this?
AAP 2005, ‘Australians divided over hanging: poll’, Sydney Morning Herald
, 1 December, http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/australians-di...
Amnesty International, The death penalty
Death Penalty Information Centre, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/
Hogan, J, 2005, ‘Thousands farewell hanged Van’, 7 December Sydney Morning Herald
Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/
Marr, D 2005, ‘Death of Compassion’, Sydney Morning Herald
,3 December, http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/death-of-compassi...
Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia, Capital punishment