“There is a new dynamic at work. The worldwide movement to abolish the death penalty is now irresistible,” said Roger Hood in a public talk last night in Taipei. Hood is a Professor Emeritus of criminology at Oxford University and a former consultant to the United Nations on the death penalty.
Hood laid out clear evidence for his thesis that the world was moving towards abolition and that the pace of this movement has increased over the past twenty years. He said the change is occurring across the globe in different political systems and different cultures. He cited democratisation in Eastern Europe, the post-colonial framework in Africa and the development of international human rights law and treaties as reasons for the change. Further details are available in Hood’s opinion piece published in yesterday’s Taipei Times.
Hood also discussed two key countries in the death penalty debate — China and the USA. Hood noted that there was a change of attitude in China in recent years. This was especially evident in human rights dialogues with EU nations. There was now discussion going on within academia and the judiciary in China about the death penalty. Surveys in China also showed that support for the death penalty was not overwhelmingly strong.
Hood noted that there was great variation between states of the US on the death penalty. Most of the executions occurred in just a few states. The Supreme Court has already acknowledged some of the norms of Article 6 of the ICCPR and may build on these decisions. If more states introduce abolition soon this might lead to the Supreme Court changing its position.
Following Hood’s speech there was more discussion that focused on how Taiwan could move towards abolition. It is now almost four years since the last execution in Taiwan. Much of this discussion focused on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Taiwan ratified earlier this year. The ICCPR doesn’t contain any clauses which promote abolition of the death penalty and this reflects international attitudes at the time it was drafted in the 1960s.
Saul Lehrfrund, a lawyer for the Death Penalty Project, said Article 6.6 of the ICCPR encourages abolition of the death penalty as an aspiration. He said it was important for defendants in death penalty cases to have access to proper counsel and all the necessary time and resources for a fair trial. The judge in capital cases has a special responsibility to ensure that all necessary rights are observed. Lehrfrund also said Article 6.4 of the ICCPR states that there must be proper mercy proceedings and all 43 prisoners currently on death row in Taiwan should have their cases reviewed in accordance with Article 6.4.
Roger Hood said an impediment to abolishing the death penalty is victim’s families. These families are distraught by their loss, but if the death penalty is applied then the families of the perpetrator of the crime also suffer. The public often react to crimes by expecting the justice system to deliver the harshest possible sentence. When the death penalty is available then there is a public expectation that it should be used.
Article 10 of the ICCPR concerns respect for prisoners and social rehabilitation. Hood said that life imprisonment without release was also unacceptable. Sentences need to have sufficient time for retribution but also hope for future release. Hood emphasised the importance of political will in abolishing the death penalty. “I don’t believe politicians have anything to fear by taking resolute action on this issue,” he said.
At the end of the evening Saul Lehrfrund made the point that the ICCPR is not necessarily the key to abolition of the death penalty in Taiwan. The answer actually lies in the constitution which doesn’t mention the death penalty but affirms the right to life.