On every level, death penalty is wrong
A decade after ending the use of the death penalty and taking a lead role in a global campaign to abolish capital punishment, the Philippines is again considering sending prisoners to the gallows. This is deeply concerning on a number of fronts.
Firstly, capital punishment is, in practice, fundamentally unjust. It disproportionately affects minorities, the poor, and those with mental disabilities.
Moreover, by backsliding on this legislation the Philippines will disregard its international obligations. In November 2007, when the Philippines became a state party to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the country committed to renouncing capital punishment forever—a decision bound by international law.
During his inauguration address on June 30, President Duterte vowed that the Philippines would honor treaties and international obligations. We trust he remains true to his word.
The President won this year’s election on the back of a promise to end crime in three to six months. The number of killings of suspected drug traffickers by police and others reported almost daily since the May 9 elections is shocking. I call on the President to take strong measures to stop this alarming trend.
Exacting retribution against criminals may have popular support among the general public, but a credible judicial system must be grounded in justice, not vengeance. Is the death penalty an appropriate or effective response to narcotics offenses? The International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors the implementation of the UN drug control conventions, advises against capital punishment for drug offenses. The board has repeatedly recommended that to be effective, drug control action must be consistent with international human rights standards.
More broadly, researchers in various countries have shown there is no conclusive evidence that use of the death penalty is a greater deterrent to crime than other methods of punishment. Countries where the death penalty has been abandoned did not, in general, record a rise in crimes.
The death penalty is also irreversible: You can’t un-execute someone. But even robust justice systems have sentenced innocent people to die. Since 1973, 156 people on death row in the United States have been exonerated, many of them, through DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project. Is the Philippines prepared to put to death men and women who may later be found innocent?
Consider the experience of Mongolia, which first abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes in the 1950s, then reintroduced it, before deciding, last December, to once again stop executing people. In reaching the decision, President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj said the people of Mongolia had suffered enough from the death penalty. In his words: “Removing the death penalty does not mean removing punishment. Criminals fear justice, and justice must be imminent and unavoidable. But we cannot repair one death with another.”
Fewer than 40 countries around the world continue to execute people. Around 170 countries have either abolished capital punishment, or have established a moratorium in law or practice. Will the Philippines move backward?
Fear, despair and frustration clearly prevail among all Filipinos amid a rise in crime and drug-related offenses. But it is the duty of political leaders to adopt solutions to the country’s challenges in ways that will support the rule of law and advance the protection of human rights.
I urge the country to consider all these facts with an open mind. The arguments are convincing and decisive: On every level—from principle to practice—use of the death penalty is wrong.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is the UN high commissioner for human rights.