Today marks the 15th World Day against the Death Penalty, an opportunity to reflect on the continued use of the death penalty around the world and the global movement towards abolition.
For those of us who live in the UK, capital punishment might seem like a remote practice and a relic of history. Over 50 years have passed since the death penalty was abolished. Two whole generations have grown up without any experience of executions and public support for the death penalty has declined steadily since abolition. There have been no serious attempts to reintroduce capital punishment in the UK since 1994, when Parliament emphatically rejected a Bill that would have provided the death penalty for the murder of a police officer and for certain terrorist offences. The proposal was defeated in the House of Commons by 403 to 159 votes.
Yet within the Commonwealth, consisting principally of former territories of the British Empire, a disproportionate number of countries continue to impose the death penalty. Only 37% of Commonwealth countries have abolished the death penalty in law, compared to 57% on a global scale. Many Commonwealth countries have also been vocal on the international stage in defending retention of the death penalty. In December 2016, half of the 40 countries that voted against a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on executions were members of the Commonwealth.
The death penalty as applied in many Commonwealth countries today can be traced back to colonial times. Historically, the UK extended its laws to overseas dominions and the mandatory death penalty by hanging was one of the myriad laws and customs that was bequeathed to the territories of the British Empire during the colonial era. Certain aspects of the colonial status quo did not disappear with independence and the death penalty was retained in former colonies once they became autonomous states. Post-independence, successive governments in a majority of Commonwealth states have been reluctant to remove it, leaving the colonial legacy of capital punishment in place ever since.
Contrary to strong political support for the death penalty in retentionist Commonwealth countries, the courts in many jurisdictions have applied a restrictive approach, limiting the circumstances in which the death penalty can be lawfully carried out. This is especially true in the English-speaking Caribbean and many Anglophone African states, where the vast majority of countries have not executed for decades. However, this experience is not universal, as six of the 23 countries that executed prisoners in 2016 were members of the Commonwealth. It is also a concern that, even if not carried out in practice, wherever the death penalty is retained in law there is the risk that executions could resume.
The death penalty is increasingly recognised as a cruel and inhuman punishment that violates fundamental human rights. The Commonwealth has a stated commitment and mandate to support and promote human rights within its 53 member states. For progress to be made in bringing the Commonwealth more in line with the rest of the world, Commonwealth states must approach the death penalty not only as a matter of criminal justice policy, but as a fundamental human rights issue, and promptly move away from this outdated punishment.