“Strong leaders execute justice, not people”

Amnesty International has launched its annual global report on death sentences and executions. It’s an essential reminder that the campaign against this barbaric, inhumane and deeply flawed form of punishment remains as important as ever. 

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The report paints a mixed picture of progress across the world. The good news is that there has been a decrease in the global use of the death penalty over the last year. More than half the world’s nations have completely abolished the death penalty. I was pleased to see Guinea and Mongolia join the list in 2017.

I can’t help but notice the increasing isolation in which countries that maintain the death penalty exist. After all, the vast majority of executions take place in only a small number of countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan – in that order. 

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In countries that remain staunch supporters of the death penalty, small steps towards abolition are just as important to recognise as big steps. Over the last year, I was pleased to see reform take place in Iran and Malaysia in relation to drug-related executions. These changes will hopefully reduce the number of death sentences and executions in both countries.

I agree with Salil Shetty, Amnesty’s Secretary General, when he said: “Despite strides towards abolishing this abhorrent punishment, there are still a few leaders who would resort to the death penalty as a ‘quick-fix’ rather than tackling problems at their roots with humane, effective and evidence-based policies. Strong leaders execute justice, not people.”

One of the most important developments is the drive for abolition in sub-Saharan Africa. Guinea last year became the 20th country in the region to end the death penalty. And even in those countries that still execute, the number of death sentences being imposed has dropped significantly across the region. Burkina Faso, Chad, Gambia and Kenya all made important strides towards abolition over the course of last year.

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Amnesty’s report also highlights the continuing trend of a historically low number of executions in the US. For the second year in a row, the US has not been ranked as one of the world’s top five executioners. This is positive news, but with 2,817 people still on death row in the US, the fight is far from over.

Earlier this month, I wrote about Anthony Ray Hinton, an African-American man who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row, convicted of a crime that he didn’t commit. The Sun Does Shine, his book about the experience, is a stark reminder that America’s criminal justice system continues to be plagued by endemic racism and inequality.

Looking to the future, we must not let up the pressure to end the death penalty. It is thanks to the efforts of campaigners like Amnesty or Reprieve that we see shifts on the death penalty at a global scale – in practice and in public opinion. Now is the time to redouble our efforts, so that more countries will understand that the death penalty does little to serve victims or deter crime.  

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