Global trend

Published : Sep 07, 2012 00:00 IST

Later this year the United Nations General Assembly is expected to reiterate the call for a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty it made previously in 2007, 2008 and 2010. The General Assembly resolutions provide an indication of the global trend towards the abolition of the death penalty.

The first resolution, in 2007, was adopted by a clear majority of 104 states in favour, 54 against and 29 abstaining. The next year, support for abolition increased (106 countries in favour), while resistance decreased (46 against, 34 abstentions). In the most recent vote, in 2010, the same pattern was visible 109 countries voted in favour, while only 41 voted against and 36 abstained. India voted against the resolution in all the three years.

The situation today is dramatically different from 1945 when the U.N. was founded: only eight member-states had abolished the death penalty for all crimes then. As of June 2012, a total of 141, constituting over two-thirds of the countries in the world, are abolitionist in law or practice. Most have done so in the last three and a half decades. Only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty when Amnesty International started campaigning for its abolition in 1977.

Europe is almost death-penalty-free (Belarus is the sole exception), while in the Americas only some Caribbean states and the United States use the death penalty. Even in the U.S., 16 States have abolished the death penalty and another has imposed a moratorium on executions. Of the 54 countries in Africa, 38 are abolitionist in law or in practice. Central Asia and the Pacific region are also virtually death-penalty-free. West Asia, and South, South-east and East Asia are thus the final frontier for the abolition of the death penalty.

Many countries that retain the death penalty do not actually execute persons regularly. In 2011, only 21 countries did the number has not exceeded 25 in the past five years. India is one of the countries that retains the death penalty but rarely executes people: there has been no execution for nearly eight years. Dhananjoy Chatterjee, hanged in August 2004, is the only person to have been executed in India for nearly 15 years.

This is a far cry from the average of over 150 executions carried out every year in India in the early years after Independence or even the average of approximately 50 a year from 1965 to 1974. A further significant reduction to an average of 12 and four executions a year took place in the decades of 1975-84 and 1985-94. A trickle of executions from 1995 to 1997 has virtually ended since.

The death penalty in India has little in relation to deterring or combating violent crime. As per the Home Ministrys own statistics, there has been no visible increase in the levels of ordinary crime and violence despite the reduction of executions in India. Experience from other countries also suggests that abolition does not lead to any increase in violent crimes. The death penalty debate in India has now got mired in terrorism politicking.

At the General Assembly in 2010, five countries, including Indias neighbours Bhutan and the Maldives, changed their previous opposition and decided to support the call for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. In South Asia, Nepal and Bhutan have already abolished the death penalty, while Sri Lanka and the Maldives are abolitionist in practice.

On the other hand, India stands with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh in holding on to the death penalty.

Bikramjeet Batra

( Bikramjeet Batra is Policy Adviser at Amnesty International. This article expresses his personal views.)

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