The death penalty is counter to the rule of law and respect for the human rights due in a democratic society. Slavery, the mutilation of prisoners and, increasingly, torture have been banished from judicial systems. The death penalty too has had its day.
As the World Day for Human Rights is celebrated once again today, Thailand has a new stance on the issue. For the first time, the government has declared an intention to abolish the death penalty, as announced in the human rights plan for the years 2009-2013.
On Oct 20 last year, the cabinet approved and proclaimed the Second National Human Rights Plan, which was circulated to all relevant government offices for adoption in a human rights programme to be implemented by ministries, departments and in the development planning of local authorities.
This second strategic plan promises a development of the legal system and its structure, including its enforcement for the protection of human rights according to human rights policy.
The most important measure relate to the death penalty. Parliament will discuss the abolition of the death penalty and its replacement with life imprisonment.
The parliamentary debate creates a different perspective to that of individual debate which is usually based only on moral arguments. From a political viewpoint, the death penalty is counter to the rule of law and respect for the human rights due in a democratic society.
There is great wisdom for a political perspective on the death penalty to be found in the experience of the Council of Europe, the vast association of 47 states that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific and embraces a wide spectrum of cultures.
"Capital punishment brutalises society by legitimising cold-blooded killing as justice. It is a fallacy that it prevents violent crime or that it can be considered as justice," said the director-general of the EC on Human Rights in Strasbourg in January 2007.All its member states are convinced that abolition of the death penalty is a mark of civilised living. In a response to the counter example that US adherence to the death penalty legitimises capital punishment, the European Court of Human Rights argued in July 1989 that even the conditions on death row in the United States went beyond the threshold set by the European Convention on Human Rights. This is an indictment of the US practice of capital punishment as "unfair, indiscriminate, and arbitrary".
Now there are 58 countries that still retain capital punishment, while 104 countries have abolished it and 35 have stopped executions in practice.
At least 714 people were executed in 2009, though this total does not include China, which did not provide a figure. The 18 countries known to have conducted executions last year were: Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Libya, Malaysia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, the US, Vietnam and Yemen.
In Thailand, 708 persons were condemned to death, 65 of them by the Supreme Court, according to figures of the Corrections Department as of August 2010.
It will be argued that the Thai population is massively in favour of the death penalty. As they will be, until the reasons for abolition are explained and laid out by an informed political leadership.
Already, the number of executions in Thailand has dropped to only two cases in the last six years. As in most other countries maintaining the death penalty, there is a dichotomy between legal procedure and actual practice.
While executions have virtually ceased, sentences of death are passed with the same frequency as in the past, leading to the misery of overcrowded jails and blocked legal procedure. Living conditions for prisoners condemned to death are inhuman, especially due to the permanent shackling once the death sentence is passed in the court of first instance - a practice prohibited in international law and ruled unacceptable by the Administrative Court.
Many members of the Thai administration are aware of the worldwide rejection of the death penalty and favour abolition. But the debate will not be easy. It is likely that there will be opposition to change from at least two important ministries. The Interior Ministry recently announced an initiative, relying on a mass signature campaign, to halve the quantity of drugs which would lead to a penalty of death, thereby almost doubling the numbers condemned.
The Justice Ministry has suggested proceeding with executions in cases where a royal pardon has not been granted within 60 days. Fortunately, the Corrections Department has refused to carry out executions where the process of royal pardon has not been explicitly completed.
As stated in the Second Human Rights Plan, the proposal is to replace the death sentence with life imprisonment. This needs careful consideration and expert advice. Life imprisonment can mean many things in many countries. Imprisonment without ever the possibility of release may even be more inhumane than the death penalty. In many countries a life sentence means a period of 15 to 30 years, with particular rules on when parole may be granted. It is unlikely that the Thai population, accustomed to sentences of inordinate length, would accept such a short period, suspecting that a corrupt system might allow inappropriate remission of sentence and release. There is a genuine fear that violent persons would repeat their crime and many would prefer that all offenders be imprisoned for ever, rather than that some would be released and offend again.
An experienced representative of the Council of Europe has proposed that progress be made in stages, beginning with a moratorium on all executions. This allows a population to grow in acceptance and also gives time for an information campaign to promote a new appreciation of human rights where human life is inviolable.
There will be difficulties, sometimes after the occurrence of a particularly awful crime. There will probably be crowd-pleasing politicians who will call for restoration of the death penalty. Slavery, the mutilation of prisoners and, increasingly, torture have been banished from judicial systems. The death penalty too has had its day.
Danthong Breen is Chairman of the Union for Civil Liberty, a human rights organisation based in Bangkok.
Sources and Relevant Links:
Bangkok Post Parliament to debate dropping death penalty 10 December 2010
UCL Change in vote by Thailand regarding Moratorium 11 Novemeber 2010
The Nation Capital punishment needs to be further debated, say experts 30 July 2010
UCL Drugs and the Death Penalty29th July 2010