Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The death penalty: Is the glass half full or half empty?

Amnesty International today issued its 2016 report on capital punishment. The thorough annual reports by Amnesty International have been produced for many years. They enable comparisons to be made and trends to be identified.

The ‘headline’ on Amnesty’s website is ‘Dramatic Rise In Executions’. It is a gloomy and discouraging message. I expect this story will run in the media around the world.

This may be a case of debating whether a glass is half empty or half full. As the report indicates, the dramatic increase is due to three countries: Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In 2014, the three accounted for 386 executions. In 2015, they were responsible for 1,451 executions. It is a huge and terrifying increase. As Amnesty recognizes, these three states generate 89% of the total executions on the planet (with the exception of China, which Amnesty does not include in its statistics because nothing official is available).

But there is another much more hopeful message in the Amnesty data.

If the very peculiar and grotesque cases of Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are excluded from the total, we actually see a rather stunning decline in the death penalty throughout the world. I looked at Amnesty’s reports over the past six years, calculating the total number of executions but without counting Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Here is the result

2010  248
2011  234
2012  288
2013  330
2014  223

2015  179

In other words, excluding those three very nasty countries, the number of executions in the world has never been lower. The decline in 2015 is nothing if not dramatic. If we look at the average for the previous five years, it is 264 executions per annum. The total of 179 for 2015 represents a drop of more than 30% compared with the average for the previous five years. Wow!

Some of this might be explained by the shrinking subject matter. In effect, there are fewer countries that apply the death penalty today than there were in 2010. But the difference is not that great. In 2010, Amnesty said that 95 states had abolished the death penalty in law., and that 139 had abolished it in either law or in practice. This year, the total is 102 for those that have abolished it in law, and 140 for those that have abolished it in law or in practice. That might explain a slight reduction, but not a 30% drop. The conclusion must be that most of the States that retain the death penalty actually use it significantly less than they did at the beginning of the decade.

China is excluded, of course. Since 2010, Amnesty has not even attempted to guess at the number of executions in China. It is probably several thousand per annum. Our information on China is entirely anecdotal, but it seems consistent with the general trend rather than with that of the three anomalous countries. There can be little doubt that China has greatly reduced its resort to capital punishment in recent years.

1 comment:

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