Public opinion not major stumbling block to removal of death penalty – EU forum

-formalising of unofficial moratorium urged

A European Union (EU)-organised forum has recommended the formalising of the unofficial moratorium on the death penalty in Caribbean countries and it has argued that public opinion is not a major impediment to the removal of capital punishment.

The two-day Caribbean Regional Conference on the Abolition of the Death Penalty at the Arthur Chung Convention Centre at Liliendaal which ended on Tuesday also stressed that the death penalty is incompatible with human rights and human dignity and that it does not “deter crime effectively”.

A statement from the conference yesterday said that it recommended that international and regional human rights law and standards relating to the death penalty be respected and that there be engagement and constructive dialogue with governments in the Caribbean as they move towards eventual abolition.

The conference, which saw participants from Europe and the Caribbean and a clutch of organisations against capital punishment, also recommended the strengthening of judicial structures so that the crimes can be effectively investigated, that victims are supported and ensuring legal assistance to vulnerable sections of society. Also recommended by the forum was human rights education as part of the curriculum for citizenship studies.

Day two of the forum saw several panel discussions. Among the key sentiments were that the death penalty is the most murderous symbol of inequality and the rich don’t get hanged only the poor and the marginalized. Moreover, the forum said that keeping the death penalty stops society from looking at what causes murder and dealing with those causes because as long as the peoples of the English-speaking Caribbean continue to hide behind the death penalty they are not forcing their politicians to deal with the guns, the drugs, the corruption, the inequality, the violence and the failure of police investigations to ensure conviction.

During the final panel discussion, which centred on the question of whether the death penalty works as a deterrent to crime, the panellists presented impassioned arguments in support of their belief that capital punishment does not deter persons from committing murder.

Melinda Janki of the Justice Institute Guyana presented two propositions in support of her argument.

Noting that the death penalty as a deterrent is expected to “discourage” individuals from committing murder, Janki contended that every time a person is murdered the death penalty has failed as a deterrent in that case.

Armed with statistics she noted that in 2013, 1,773 persons were killed in the countries of Barbados, The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Jamaica.

“The death penalty is continuing to fail,” she said as people are continuing to be murdered.

Further, Janki posited that it is possible to get rid of the death penalty and have a low or lowered murder rate (number of deaths per 100,000 citizens.)

Janki noted the death rate of countries in the Caribbean which have maintained the death rate. Haiti, she said had a death rate of 6.9 while the rate was 11.3 in Barbados, 36.6 in the Bahamas, 17.2 in Guyana, 26.1 in Trinidad and 41.2 in Jamainca.

She particularly noted that in 2013 the death rate in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) was 8.6 while in the USVI it was 39.2. The USVI has the death penalty while the BVI does not.

Sharing statistics on death rates in Europe between the years 1995-2013, Janki told the audience that several countries saw a reduction in their death rate after the removal of the death penalty.

The panellist also took pains to state that she could not conclusively claim that the abolition of the death penalty caused the reduction in the death rates but she posited that the rates prove her hypothesis that a country can see a reduction in the death rate after the abolition of the death penalty.

Janki and the other panellists stressed that in order to adequately combat murder “we have to look at who is killing and why.”

Bemoaned

Lord Navin Dholakia, member of the UK All Party Parliamentary Committee on Abolition of the Death Penalty and chair of the panel bemoaned the fact that governments around the world regularly “spend more money in dealing with people who commit crime than dealing with people in terms of crime prevention.”

Janki noted that unequal societies are much more violent than equal societies while a failure to improve the justice system is also a serious cause of crime including murder.

“if people think they are going to be caught that’s a deterrent; if they think they are going to get away with it they are going to kill,” she said, adding that “the death penalty doesn’t stop people from taking drugs; it doesn’t stop people from using guns and it doesn’t enable police to capture people and get them convicted.”

Another panellist Leela Maria Goretti Ramdeen, of the organization Greater Caribbean for Life, pointed out the contradiction in the use of capital punishment as a deterrent for murder.

Quoting writer Victor Hugo she said “what says the law: thou shalt not kill. How does it say it? By killing you.”

The death penalty is not about justice, Ramdeen stressed it is about vengeance. While expressing support for individuals and families who have suffered as a result of violent crimes, Ramdeen noted that her organization believes that non-lethal means are sufficient to deter crimes. She shared several legal decisions and legislation which have addressed the issue of the death penalty as a deterrent.

Several UN resolutions, she explained, including resolution 65/46 of 2013 endorse the view that there is no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty. Rather empirical evidence suggests that certainty of conviction and in a reasonably quick time is a crucial factor to deterring crime.

Barbadian Queen’s Counsel, Andrew Pilgrim in his presentation bemoaned the fact that there is no differentiation under Barbadian law for different types of murder in relation to the application of the death penalty.

He shared the case of a 17-year-old who was sentenced to hang for killing an 18-year-old with a rock. He noted that this case changed his opinion of the death penalty as while the young man intended to kill the other he was only 17 with a life ahead of him, one which was cut short by a decision made by rage- fuelled impulse.

Pilgrim further complained about issues within the Barbadian legal system which put the poor at a disadvantage. He noted that once a person crosses the threshold of a police station the only account that has legal weight is that of the police and thus a person can be convicted on the police claim of a confession whether or not they deny having made same.

Legal aid in the Caribbean, he declared is a myth as persons are often not afforded representation either by a justice of the peace, religious leader or court-appointed counsel during questioning. Thus capital punishment means that those without capital are the ones punished since those who can afford legal representation receive same.

The panellists concluded that the deterrence question before them was incapable of conclusive proof as they will never know of those who have been deterred only those who have not been deterred.

The European Union organized a Caribbean Regional Conference on the Abolition of the Death Penalty in partnership with the International Commission against the Death Penalty. The conference was funded by the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and the British High Commission in Guyana. Twenty-five participants came from Europe and the Caribbean region, as well as numerous participants from Guyana. The following organizations were also represented: the European External Action Service; the International Commission against the Death Penalty; the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Abolition of the Death Penalty, the World Coalition against the Death Penalty; Greater Caribbean for Life; Parliamentarians for Global Action; Guyana Human Rights Association; Justice Institute Guyana; Human Rights Commission Belize; National Human Rights Defence Network Haiti; and the Ministry of Legal Affairs of Guyana.

Conclusions of the conference:

The risk of executing innocent people exists in any justice system:

There have been and always will be cases of executions of innocent people. No matter how developed a justice system is, it will always remain susceptible to human failure. Unlike prison sentences, the death penalty is irreversible and irreparable.

The arbitrary application of the death penalty can never be ruled out:

The death penalty is often used in a disproportional manner against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic, political and religious groups.

The death penalty is incompatible with human rights and human dignity:

The death penalty violates the right to life, which happens to be the most basic of all human rights. It also violates the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. Furthermore, the death penalty undermines human dignity, which is inherent to every human being.

The death penalty does not deter crime effectively:

The death penalty lacks the deterrent effect, which is commonly referred to by its advocates. As recently stated by the General Assembly of the United Nations, “there is no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty” (UNGA Resolution 65/206). It is noteworthy that in many retentionist states, the effectiveness of the death penalty in order to prevent crime is being seriously questioned by a continuously increasing number of law enforcement professionals.

Public opinion is not a major stumbling block for abolition:

Public support for the death penalty does not necessarily mean that taking away the life of a human being by the state is right. There are undisputed historical precedents where gross human rights violations had had the support of a majority of the people, but which were condemned vigorously later on. It is the job of leading figures and politicians to underline the incompatibility of capital punishment with human rights and human dignity. It needs to be pointed out that public support for the death penalty is inextricably linked to the desire of the people to be free from crime. However, there exist more effective ways to prevent crime.

 

Recommendations

Formalize the unofficial moratorium of the death penalty in countries in the Caribbean region that retain capital punishment;

Respect international and regional human rights law and standards relating to the death penalty;

Engagement and constructive dialogue with governments in the Caribbean region as they take steps towards eventual abolition of the death penalty;

Strengthening justice system structures, including ensuring that it is sufficiently resources, that it has the capacity of effectively investigating crimes, ensuring that victims are supported, ensuring adequate legal assistance to vulnerable sections of society;

Advancing human rights education as part of the curriculum for citizenship studies.

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