CAMPAIGNING for an end to death penalty is often an uphill task. At Amnesty International, we have done so for decades, since we consider the death penalty to be the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment – and a violation of the human right to life. Every execution we fail to prevent takes its toll. Thankfully, in the darkness there is always some light to be found. This week, Amnesty International is releasing its annual report on the use of the death penalty worldwide, and if there is one region that stands out as a beacon of hope for ridding the world of this abhorrent punishment, it is Sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2014, 46 judicial executions were carried out in the region, compared to 64 in 2013 – a reduction of more than a quarter. It is also striking that these executions happened in only three countries – Equatorial Guinea, Somalia and Sudan – showing just how isolated those states are in the region. Progress towards ridding sub-Saharan Africa of the death penalty is not just found in statistics. Last year several governments took small but significant steps towards abolition. In September, the government of Chad adopted a penal code aimed at abolishing the death penalty.
In December, Madagascar’s parliament adopted a bill abolishing the death penalty completely – this now just need’s the president’s signature to become law. When that happens, Madagascar may become the 100th country in the world to fully remove the death penalty in law – a historic milestone surely worth celebrating.
The world is slowly but surely consigning the death penalty to history, and it is heartening to see that Sub-Saharan Africa at the forefront of this trend. However, it was not all good news last year. A dark trend was starkly evident across the world – governments using the death penalty in a misguided attempt to tackle crime, terrorism and internal instability. Sadly, despite the progress in Sub-Saharan Africa, a small number of countries took regressive steps.
In Nigeria, the number of death sentences rose significantly from at least 141 in 2013 to 659 in 2014. Most of the death sentences in Nigeria were for murder and armed robbery but 70 death sentences were imposed by military courts against soldiers for conspiracy to mutiny and mutiny in the context of the armed conflict against Boko Haram. Cameroon’s parliament voted in favour of a bill that provides for the death penalty for acts of terrorism.
The use of the death penalty to combat crime and terrorism was starkly evident elsewhere in the world. In Pakistan, the government lifted a six-year moratorium on the execution of civilians in the wake of the horrific Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar last December. Seven people were executed in less than two weeks at the end of 2014. The government also pledged to execute hundreds of people on death row who had been convicted of terrorism-related offences. China, Iran and Iraq were among countries that execute people for “terrorism” last year.
In a year when abhorrent summary executions by armed groups were branded on the global consciousness like never before, it is appalling that governments are themselves resorting to more executions in a knee-jerk reaction to terrorism. Other states made use of executions in similarly flawed attempts to address – or appear to address – crime rates. Jordan ended an eight-year moratorium in December, putting 11 murder convicts to death, with the government saying it was a move to end a surge in violent crime. In Indonesia, authorities announced plans to execute mainly drug traffickers to tackle a public safety “national emergency”. The authorities implemented these plans in January 2015 executing six people.
The simple fact is that governments using the death penalty to tackle crime and security threats are deceiving themselves and the public; in some cases cynically attempting to look effective by executing people. The death penalty is not a particular deterrent to crime and terrorism. The evidence – from UN and other studies – is that the death penalty is no more effective in preventing crime than other punishments such as terms of imprisonment.
Countries that still carry out executions are an isolated few. Just 22 states executing people last year. When the United Nations was created in 1945, only eight countries had abolished the death penalty, but today 140 countries have done so either in law or practice. The countries that still retain the death penalty in Sub-Saharan Africa must realize that they are on the wrong side of history, and need to join the vast majority of countries that have abolished the ultimate cruel punishment.
Oluwatosin Poppoola is an Amnesty International Death Penalty Expert