This week, PRI’s Death Penalty Project Manager, Oliver Robertson, attended the annual Death Penalty Project lecture, given this year by William Schabas, Professor of International Law at Middlesex University London, on the prospects for a death penalty free world.
William Schabas is on the optimistic end of the abolitionist spectrum, maintaining confidently over the years that he will see the death penalty abolished in his lifetime. His expectation, he explained at the annual Death Penalty Project lecture in London, is based on his observations during a life spent opposing capital punishment.
When Bill Schabas first got involved in abolition, in the early 1990s, there was a lot of movement. The European Court of Human Rights had ruled that ‘death row phenomenon’ exists and is a reason not to extradite someone facing death to the USA. Optional Protocol 2 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provided for the universal abolition of the death penalty in international law. Amnesty International had released its influential When the State Kills. And the end of the Cold War promised new opportunities for the world. But there was still only about one country a year abolishing the death penalty.
By the late 1990s, said Schabas, there was a feeling that we were in a ‘steady state’, with a hard core of retentionist states that would not be moved. But since then abolition has continued, with on average three states a year relinquishing the ability to kill in the name of justice. Of 32 countries identified as ‘hard core’ retentionist over the last 20 years (i.e. which have executed at least 20 people in any five-year period), 14 are now abolitionist and a further nine have reduced execution rates so much that they have dropped below the 20+ criterion. Just nine countries (China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, USA and Yemen) still execute at this rate. The reasons why individual countries abolish vary, of course, but Schabas sees no reason why this multi-decadal trend should suddenly stop.
But perhaps equally importantly, countries that stop executing very rarely go back. Of the countries that had stopped executions for ten years, he found, almost none have returned to the hangman. Gambia, which broke a 27-year moratorium in 2012, was an exception, not a harbinger. Moreover, he said, people who have never lived with the death penalty are more likely to oppose it and to see it as an historical relic (much as they see medieval torture devices) – this helps explain why young people are often more abolitionist than older persons, a trend that PRI’s public opinion survey in Belarus last year bore out. Even though efforts to bring back the death penalty still resurface, they usually fail – and in a final piece of cheering news, it was announced at the lecture that a Private Member’s Bill to reimpose capital punishment in the UK had been withdrawn. (Still, at least sponsor Philip Hollobone MP will have something to talk about come consideration of Private Member’s Bills – he’s got another 16 proposals tabled on the same day.)