Tomorrow, 30th November, is Cities for Life Day when cities around the world celebrate the abolition of the death penalty. On that day in 1786, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany became the first civil state in the world to get rid of capital punishment.
Over 414,000,000 South Americans can join in the celebrations. Each and every one of them lives in a country that has abolished the death penalty. Only one tiny group, roughly one-fifth of one per cent of South America’s peoples, is left out. The people of Guyana. We are the only country in South America that still has the death penalty. Our western neighbour Venezuela was the first in South America to abolish it. Our eastern neighbour, Suriname, is the most recent. But we have nothing to celebrate.
At last week’s EU sponsored International Conference on the Abolition of the Death Penalty, a few people said that the EU should not tell Guyana to abolish the death penalty. I totally agree, but the EU is not telling us what to do. Guyana is a democracy. The EU has a right to express its opinion that the death penalty is cruel and inhumane, not a deterrent and has no place in a civilised society. About 150 states hold that opinion. Perhaps we should give it serious consideration.
The member states of the EU have very low murder rates. According to OECD data, EU Ambassador Jernej’s home state of Slovenia has a murder rate of 2 per 100,000 persons per year, and the UK, the conference co-sponsor, has a murder rate of 3 per 1,000,000 persons per year. Our murder rate fluctuates at around 18 per 100,000 each year. Perhaps we should ask the UK and the rest of the EU how they have achieved such low murder rates. The answers may be complex but at least we can start to fix our own broken society piece by piece.
At the conference some individuals have argued that the Bible says “An eye for an eye.” On what grounds does one prefer that instruction to God’s commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”? Modern Israel abolished the death penalty for murder in 1954. Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. In Matthew 5:38 Jesus appears to reject completely the teaching of “an eye for an eye.” What criteria can a Christian use to reject the teachings of Christ?
These are not easy questions to answer. What is very worrying is that the various Christian churches and sects of Guyana appear to have no interest in working together to formulate one coherent position on the death penalty. It was good to see the Catholic nuns and Bishop Alleyne at the conference. It was disappointing that more religious leaders did not participate. In order to have a rich and meaningful discussion, we need the opinions and advice of Hindus, Moslems, Baha’is, Rastafarians, House of Israel, Christians and other religions.
A much repeated justification for the death penalty is that it deters murder. It should be obvious to everyone by now that every time someone is murdered the death penalty has failed as a deterrent. How many people have to die before society accepts that the death penalty does not work?
There are some who argue that, despite the murders, the death penalty is working because it keeps the rest of us from killing one another. That seems a very extreme position. It is not supported by the experience of countries that do not have the death penalty. In 2014 there were 537 murders in England and Wales. The combined population of those two countries is approximately 57,500,000 people. Obviously the vast majority of people did not commit murder even though there was no death penalty to deter them.
Could it be that the average human being is a reasonably decent person trying to lead a decent life in difficult circumstances? Decent people don’t kill other human beings.
Perhaps we should not be asking, “Does the death penalty deter murder?” but the more useful question of, “How do we as one nation with one destiny eliminate, or at least reduce, murder in our country?” Proponents of the death penalty must compare it with other strategies for reducing murder before they are in a position to say whether or not it is effective.
One lawyer has suggested that we need the death penalty to deal with so-called Islamic State terrorists. That is probably the one group of people on whom the death penalty has absolutely no effect. They want to be martyrs.
Another argument in favour of the death penalty is that the victim deserves justice. Unfortunately the victim is dead. That is why it is murder. It is literally impossible to render justice to a dead person. On the other hand if a murder victim was opposed to the death penalty, then we are guilty of dishonouring his/her memory by the death penalty.
Justice for the victim really means that we, the living, are hurt and angry. We want the murderer to be punished. That is a very healthy response. We will know that we are in serious trouble when we are unmoved or uncaring about the lives of our fellow human beings.
The critical and difficult question is what to do with someone who has murdered another human being. I believe we should ask the victim’s family and friends. We should take their views into account. Perhaps our grief at having failed to protect their loved one will help us to unite as a people and protect one another better in future.
Perhaps it is necessary to stress that punishment is not the same thing as vengeance. In 2011 Anders Breivek murdered 77 people in Norway. The Norwegians do not have the death penalty. Two days after Breivik’s heinous crime, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said, “We are still shocked by what has happened, but we will never give up our values…Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity but never naivety…We will answer hatred with love.”
What kind of country can possibly react in this way? One that is so civilised and compassionate that its current murder rate is 6 people in every1,000,000. One that is so humane and merciful that its prisons are focused on rehabilitation. Prisoners can even go to university.
There are strong feelings in Guyana for and against the penalty. Those who wish to retain it must be taken seriously. Their concerns must be heard respectfully. Their fears for the safety of their fellow citizens must be addressed through legitimate strategies to protect the lives of the people of Guyana. But we must not be afraid to change. In addition to our high murder rate, we have the highest suicide rate in the world and the fourth highest rate of road deaths. How are we going to move away from a culture of death to a culture of life?
Next year we will be 50 years old as an independent state. We have thrown away a great deal of what we saw as British imperialism. Yet we retain the death penalty. Can we really go to our 50th birthday party as a proud and free people, with this colonial barbarism around our necks?
The State is the people – it is us. When the State executes a human being we are not exempt from responsibility.
As the great Bob Marley asked, “Would you let the system make you kill your brother man?” One day we will be civilized and compassionate enough to answer, “No. Dread. No!”
It is only a question of when, not if.
Justice Institute Guyana Inc