Although some progress has been made towards abolition of the death penalty, several countries – including some in the OSCE area – retain the death penalty for certain offences. In the third blog of our series examining trends identified in Global Prison Trends 2021, Jennifer Roberts from OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) outlines some of the misconceptions around the death penalty and how abolition can be achieved – specifically, the stakeholders whose involvement is critical.
In 2021, both Kazakhstan and the US state of Virginia abolished the death penalty. Such efforts must be congratulated and contribute to the growing trend towards abolition of the death penalty globally. The death penalty is a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment that violates the right to life. However, several states continue to use it, including in the OSCE region.
Every year, ODIHR highlights the ways in which the death penalty comes into conflict with different human rights in order to demonstrate why its use has no place in democratic societies. Capital punishment disproportionately affects people in situations of vulnerability because of their race, gender or socioeconomic status. Women on death row often come from environments scarred by abuse and are more likely to face sexual and gender-based violence in detention. Aside from raising awareness about the human rights at risk, it is important for all abolitionist actors to address the underlying reasons for continuing support for the death penalty. In ODIHR’s 2021 background paper The Death Penalty in the OSCE Area, a focus is therefore placed on how some OSCE countries have travelled down the road to abolition and especially which actors were influential in moving abolition processes forward in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Latvia and the American state of Virginia. It is hoped that this will assist other states with their own road to abolition.
So, why do states still use the death penalty?
There are many widespread misconceptions about the death penalty: that international law does not prohibit it; that it is a deterrent that will stop people committing serious crimes; that it is sanction people deserve; that the criminal justice system is fair and reliable and that it is cheaper or more humane to execute people than to imprison them for life. Another perception is that a majority of the public support the death penalty. Others argue that the death penalty is necessary to achieve justice for the victims and to get closure for the family members of murder victims. Many reasons why the death penalty is still applied are based on a lack of public awareness about its complexities and a lack of political will to abolish it. As ODIHR’s Director, Matteo Mecacci, emphasised on 2021 World Day against the Death Penalty, strong and responsible political leadership is essential to ensure that abolition efforts are successful.
In all 4 countries that were explored for ODIHR’s 2021 Background Paper, political leadership was crucial to abolishing the death penalty. Top political figures were influential by announcing moratoria on executions or commuting death sentences but also by prioritising criminal justice reforms that restrict the use of the death penalty. These steps often helped to make it apparent that capital punishment is redundant in modern criminal justice systems and that abolition does not lead to an increase in crime.
So, how can political leaders be encouraged to pursue abolition?
- Advocacy efforts of different national actors with decision makers
Civil society organizations can work in many different ways, and in coalition with different actors, to change legislator and public opinion about various commonly held myths regarding criminal justice systems that apply the death penalty. For example, in Virginia, CSOs played an influential role in lobbying for abolition with politicians; organising tours with victims’ family members, exonerees, and abolitionists to talk at rallies and demonstrations about concerns relating to miscarriages of justice; and writing friends of the court letters to oppose the death penalty on certain grounds. In Kazakhstan too, CSOs, including PRI, worked directly with government officials and parliamentarians to convince them of reasons against the death penalty and address challenges to abolition. In Mongolia, CSOs met legislators and worked with state institutions on abolition campaigns as well as with criminal justice actors. Government officials in Latvia were positively influenced by the European experience showing that the murder rate in a country does not depend on whether capital punishment is used.
- Public awareness of the flaws in criminal justice systems that apply the death penalty
While public opinion on capital punishment is notoriously difficult to measure and does not exempt states from their human rights obligations, it is undoubtedly a factor that can impede abolition. Improved public education leading to more opposition to the death penalty, and acceptance for alternatives, creates a conducive atmosphere for political decision makers to pursue abolition. In Mongolia, CSOs raised awareness about the problems with the death penalty through art exhibitions and film discussions and media coverage to try and shift public opinion. In Virginia, the effort of families of murder victims played a significant role in raising awareness about the realities of the death penalty and helped counter the argument that capital punishment was required to deliver justice to victims and their families. In Kazakhstan, CSOs were also influential in raising public awareness about the death penalty, emphasizing the risk of miscarriages of justice.
- Interventions at the international level
The ability of national actors to draw on international principles and safeguards has provided justification and weight to arguments of abolition advocates. Reputational risks and considerations of international standing can lead political leaders to support abolition. In Kazakhstan, international monitoring bodies and their reporting processes influenced the abolition process and international advocacy efforts contributed to the promotion of reforms in the criminal justice system. In Latvia, inter-governmental organizations were significant on the road to abolition – specifically following independence and Latvia’s plan to enter the Council of Europe and the EU. In Mongolia, strong EU support for abolition and the efforts of international experts in lobbying legislators and key officials to follow up on abolition efforts played an important role. In Virginia, international outcry about certain cases helped to bolster concerns within the state about the death penalty.
So, what’s next?
Criminal justice systems that use capital punishment cause severe mental and physical suffering not only to the person concerned, but also to their family, victims’ family members, as well as the many other individuals involved in carrying out executions. When the public and political decision makers become more aware of the human rights concerns related to the death penalty, as well as its ineffectiveness, abolition efforts are much more likely to succeed. Coalitions of national and international organisations working together to address common misconceptions and foster strong political commitment for abolition are crucial. At the same time, states must take seriously their responsibility to make relevant information about the death penalty available to the public and take steps towards its eradication.