Exposing the Death Penalty

By Aubrey Harris, Amnesty Canada’s volunteer coorindator for the Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” boomed the Wizard… This scene in the Wizard of Oz can of course be applied to many situations but it is particularly apt when it comes to the death penalty. Despite continued global progression towards universal abolition – and progression in transparency in a few states, a number of the world’s death penalty states keep attempting to draw the curtain closed. They do not want their population to know how ineffective the death penalty is, or how many people are executed – or even HOW the state executes prisoners. Why the secrecy? In general the more the public sees and learns about the death penalty, the less they like it.

Severely botched executions in the USA have lead to decreased willingness of drug sources (now only a few compounding pharmacies) to take part in the process. Instead of recognising that there simply is no humane way to execute, a number of US states have declared drug suppliers a state secret. Other states have resorted to passing legislation to use untried methods or methods (shooting and the electric chair) already abandoned by nearly all jurisdictions because of the lack of efficiency in killing. Fortunately there are states seriously examining death penalty repeal and joining the 18 states already without the death penalty.

Countries like China, Belarus and Viet Nam have declared all information on execution to be a state secret, even how many they carry out. Several US states have also declared information on their execution procedures secret.

International efforts to understand the global practice of the death penalty are also hampered by this secrecy. Limited cooperation by death penalty states has meant that the United Nations often refers to the reports of respected NGOs. Amnesty International is respected as one of the most reliable.

Today we release our annual report on the death penalty. A report that pulls back the curtain on state executions around the world – including the good news: the world is continuing to move to universal abolition. More countries are abandoning capital punishment, others have restricted laws, imposed moratoriums and applied greater respect to international law and standards. Others however have continued executing. Some have resumed executions. Many executions were carried out in cruel or inhumane ways sometimes in public. Progress in abolition was seen all around the world. You can find out more in the report, or via our interactive global map. This report gives hope but also explains why the world’s largest human rights organisation opposes the death penalty in all circumstances.