Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

The Death Penalty Around the World

In this second installment, I am still mapping the geography of capital punishment before turning to arguments about it.  Looking at the U.S., we saw 15 states (plus the District of Columbia) without the death penalty and 35 states (plus the federal government and the U.S. military) with the death penalty.  But several of those states seemed poised to eliminate it: In 2010, Connecticut passed repeal, but it was vetoed by the governor.  The same thing had happened to New Hampshire in 2000 and a threat by the governor to veto it led to repeal failing in the 2010 NH senate after passing the house.  Colorado came within 2 senate votes of passing repeal.  Illinois’ legislature has passed repeal and waits to see if the governor will sign it. Repeal movements are getting stronger in states as diverse as Nebraska, South Dakota, Oregon, Washington State, and even Kentucky and Tennessee.  So, how does this compare to the situation globally?

As shown in this nice color-coded map, there are 139 nations which have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.  Of that number:  95 nations (including the entire European Union, Canada, Mexico, much of Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and much of the Southern Cone of Africa) have abolished the death penalty for all crimes.  Many of these have gone further and changed their constitutions to make certain that a crime wave cannot easily restore the death penalty.  Another 9 countries (Bolivia, Brazil, the Cook Islands, El Salvador, Israel, Fiji, Kyrgystan (!), Latvia, and Peru) have eliminated the death penalty for ordinary crimes (i.e., reserving it for war crimes or political assassinations or murders in the military).  An additional 35 countries have the death penalty on the books, but have not executed anyone in over 10 years and have not sought the death penalty for longer. (Death penalty opponents still work to get this “practical” abolitionist countries to go further and eliminate the penalty from the books.)

That leaves only 58 countries where the death penalty is retained in both law and ordinary practice. 

Five (5) countries account for the vast majority of executions yearly.  Those five nations are China ( 470 executions in 2007, 1,718 excutions in 2008, and thousands in 2009); Iran (317 in ’07, 346 in ’08, and 120+ in ’09); Saudi Arabia (143 in ’07, 102 in ’08, and 69+ in ’09); Pakistan (135 in ’07; 36 in ’08; 120 in ’09) (Pakistan sometimes trades off with Iraq, the Sudan, or Syria), and the United States (42 in ’07, ’37 in ’08, and 52 in ’09). The United States should look in shame at being regularly listed alongside the world’s greatest abusers of human rights!

The other trend to note globally is that the direction and momentum is toward abolition.  Since 1976 (the year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia that states with re-written capital punishment laws that are “fair” and not “arbitrary in application” could resume executions), 81 nations have abolished the death penalty–and the pace is increasing.  As an American, I find it embarrassing that my country has a more ruthless punishment than Turkey (abolished in ’04), Kyrgystan, Argentina, Chile, Cambodia, or Bosnia-Herzogovina!  Hong Kong won the right to remain death-penalty free even after being returned to China in 1997!

This isolation hurts the U.S. in fighting crime and terrorism since abolitionist countries usually will not extradite accused criminals to countries that retain the death penalty unless they have assurances that the person will not be executed.  On December 10, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted for a global moratorium on executions (109 “yes” votes, 41 “no” votes, 35 abstentions, and 7 absences).

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January 31, 2011 - Posted by | blog series, capital punishment, ethics, human rights, U.S. politics, violence

1 Comment »

  1. Some intriguing statistics.

    Comment by Willie | February 1, 2011 | Reply


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