Friday, March 20, 2009

Death penalty: At what cost?

By William Gomes March 19, 2009

“THERE’S no proof that the death penalty deters crime. It's a strange philosophy that the state should kill to encourage people not to kill.” This is how Massachusetts State Representative James B. Eldridge argued against the death penalty. When Mother Teresa visited California's death row in 1987, she made a very simple appeal against the death penalty, asserting, “What you do to these men, you do to God.”

I am campaigning against death penalty in Bangladesh. Recently, I was discussing this with my friend, who had a family member who was brutally killed by a man, trying to point out why I am campaigning to abolish the death penalty. She said death penalty was good, because it scared people away from doing things that could get them killed. It’s about justice, retribution, and punishment, she said. In her mind, the death penalty will help to deter crime and to make society more civilized.

The truth is that, as a campaigner to abolish the death penalty, I also stand for justice and peace. Yes, I know that crime is surely a threat to lives. But the question lies in the methods and action that should be used to deal with it. Even if one supposes that the death penalty is morally justifiable, there are many good reasons to oppose it.

Death penalty is irrevocable. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the most cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment, whatever form it takes - electrocution, hanging, gassing, beheading, stoning, shooting or lethal injection.

The death penalty denies the possibility of rehabilitation and reconciliation. It is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it. It is also an affront on human dignity. The right to life and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment are recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other international human rights instruments, and many national constitutions.

The death penalty is discriminatory and is often used disproportionately against the poor, minorities, and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities. It is imposed and carried out arbitrarily. In some countries, it is used as a tool of repression to silence the political opposition.

Humanitarians have been campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty for more than three decades. There was a time when the death penalty was practiced in many countries all over the world, but over the last few decades, many countries have abolished it. In 1977, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. As of Dec. 2008, that figures stands at 92 and more than two-thirds of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Of the 59 countries that retain it, only 24 are known to have carried out executions in 2007.

Finally, I would like to point out a famous saying of Mahatma Gandhi, “God alone can take life because He alone gives it……An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

The writer is an independent human rights activist, a Catholic ecumenical activist, and a political analyst. He is also the Executive Director of the Christian Development Alternative (CDA), an organization against torture and human rights violations.