World Day Against the Death Penalty: small victories and big challenges

By Aubrey Harris, Coordinator for the Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty

Today, 10 October, is World Day Against the Death Penalty. This year abolitionist groups from around the world are focussed on efforts to abolish the death penalty in the Caribbean. Amnesty International released a report today also detailing one of the biggest myths of death penalty supporters – the claim of deterrence.

In Canada though we have another special reason to celebrate this October 10th. It is the first October 10th in five years in which Canadian citizen Hamid Ghassemi-Shall is not facing possible execution.

His wife Antonella, who has been a most outspoken and passionate advocate for his release, can look forward to seeing him in person and free rather than communicating by telephone call from him on death row in Tehran.

In May I wrote a blog about Hamid. It touched particularly on how close Canadians still are to the death penalty despite our own country being free of it or from any fear that it would return here. Many countries today have abolished the death penalty in part from efforts by previous Canadian governments to promote worldwide abolition. It helps not only the citizens of other countries, but Canadians as well, from facing the possibility of this grave violation of human rights at the hands of any state.

To be clear, Amnesty International does not condone any violent crime. Neither murder by an individual nor murder by the state. Those responsible for violent crime must be punished but in a way that is consistent with human rights and that is effective at preventing future violent crimes. The death penalty is not consistent with human rights and it is not an effective deterrent to crime. In fact, jurisdictions without the death penalty typically have fewer per capita violent crimes than similar jurisdictions that have it.

Furthermore, the extent to which the death penalty is applied in many states frequently violates international law. In the case of Hamid, he was convicted on vaguely worded charges and with no indication of any lethal consequence to others. The evidence itself was flimsy and left plenty of room for reasonable doubt.

The use of a mandatory death penalty, such as exists in Trinidad & Tobago and as applied to the original charges Hamid faced, also violates international law and norms on the death penalty.

While we celebrate Hamid’s freedom and restoration of his rights we must encourage other countries to help realise the rights of all people to be free from the death penalty and a first step in that direction, if not yet achieving abolition, must be to bring laws into line with international obligations under documents like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Economic and Social Council Safeguards for those facing the death penalty. We must also encourage all countries that retain the death penalty to follow the lead of several countries in recent years, such as Mongolia and Pakistan, to establish a moratorium on executions. The UN General Assembly has called four times since 2007 for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

There is another aspect to these calls that we must highlight. The Canadian government has, since the first of these calls, refused to co-sponsor the moratorium move at the UN. Co-sponsorship is not a financial endorsement, but a moral support. With Canadians still at risk of death sentences (and executions) in several places around the world today, it is not just ‘foreigners’ affected, but Canadians too. As voices for Canada it remains shameful that our government has not co-sponsored any of the General Assembly motions in the past six years, calling for a moratorium on executions. Adding our moral support to such calls helps protect Canadians abroad and also is a zero-cost way to help protect the basic human rights of others. It is a moral obligation our government has failed to abide by and high time that was corrected.

Find out more about Amnesty’s Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty