I’m just back from a visit to China where I participated in an important seminar on reform of the death penalty. It was jointly sponsored by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. There were about 30 people in attendance, including the leading specialists on the subject in China from the universities, the National People’s Congress, the Supreme People’s Court, prosecutors and defence counsel. The United Nations brought three experts, Roger Hood of Oxford University, Hans-Jörg Albrecht of the Max Planck Institute and myself.
One after another, the Chinese specialists took the floor to affirm their commitment to the reform and the eventual abolition of the death penalty. We discussed many of the features of the imposition of capital punishment in China.
There have been some significant reforms in death penalty practice in recent years. In 2007, review of death sentences by higher courts became mandatory. In 2011, 13 crimes for which the death penalty could be imposed were repealed, and a prohibition on executing persons over 75 was adopted.
Notoriously, China does not issue statistics on the number of executions that are carried out. We have been told over and over again that this is a ‘state secret’. Frustrated by this unacceptable situation, Amnesty International has decided to stop even speculating on the number of executions. It says simply that China’s executions number in ‘thousands’, and that China accounts for more death sentences than the rest of the world put together.
Nevertheless, our interlocutors at the seminar insisted that the total number of death sentences has dropped as a result of the 2007 reforms by approximately 50%. If that is true – and I have no reason to doubt what the Chinese scholars tell us – then China has made very significant progress in recent years. We were also told that the Supreme People’s Court now grants about 10% of the death penalty appeals that it hears. That figure is not inconsistent with the 50% reduction, and probably reflects the fact that the more questionable death sentences are now eliminated by the lower courts before they even get to the highest appellate level.
The repeal of the death penalty provisions for 13 crimes earlier this year seemed to concern rather obscure offences, and my impression is that this did not contribute in a very significant way to reducing the overall volume of capital sentences. However, it was cited as something of symbolic importance. There was broad agreement at the seminar that further progress needs to be made, and that in the short to medium term China should cease executions for all non-violent crimes. I have no idea what percentage of the current executions concern drug trafficking or corruption, and what percentage is reserved for murder. An emphasis was placed on developing means by which the death penalty can be reduced through judicial intervention, this being a more promising approach than legislative reform. That makes sense, and is consistent with what has taken place in many countries in Europe and elsewhere that have moved towards abolition in recent decades.
The overall message is one of a commitment to reform, and that is a very good thing. That it is situated within a perspective of full abolition is also extremely positive and encouraging. The information is inadequate and the statistics are lacking. Despite this, the information that we do get indicates that there has been much improvement. It is important to recognize this and to encourage further change.
In my concluding comments at the seminar, I suggested that China might find a way to express its evolving view on the death penalty by abstaining when the bi-annual resolution on capital punishment comes before the United Nations General Assembly next November.
This positive assessment is not meant to suggest that a huge amount does not remain to be done (nor to imply that China does not have other serious human rights problems). As a reform measure, China should eliminate capital punishment for all crimes but murder. It should record and publish statistics, not only to satisfy international curiosity but in order to inform the research and the ongoing debate within China. Research on the subject is still very rudimentary. This is not helped by the fact that the numbers are kept secret.
In other countries where the death penalty remains in force, like the United States, reform is driven by the vigilant work of dedicated defense counsel and a robust civil society. Although there are some very committed lawyers who work in the area in China, there is no real comparison with what happens in the United States. And civil society in the form of NGOs is not very visible at all in China. The main forum for debates, it would seem, takes the form of conferences and seminars like the one held last week.
Monitoring the status of capital punishment is very much an exercise in observing trends and estimating their extent. The United Nations itself has been rather conservative, and little more than twenty years ago it still seemed to doubt that there was a clear momentum towards global abolition. China’s behaviour in recent years reflects the global trend among states that retain capital punishment towards very significant reduction in its extent. There are only a few exceptions, of which Iran is the main one. If it is true that China has cut back its executions by 50% in recent years, then that is a more dramatic reduction than if every other state in the world that imposes capital punishment were to abolish the practice!