Today marks the 16th World Day against the Death Penalty, once again providing an opportunity to reflect on the use of the death penalty around the world. The path towards abolition is frequently paved by progressive restriction in the imposition and application of capital punishment. Accordingly, this year we consider the decline of the mandatory death penalty, a practice which an ever-increasing number of countries have recognised as cruel, unfair and ultimately incompatible with fundamental human rights protections.
Approximately 29 countries around the world continue to impose mandatory death sentences for crimes including murder, drug trafficking and blasphemy, amongst other offences. In many countries, the practice of imposing the death penalty automatically originates in laws inherited under British colonial rule. Since then, an increasing number of countries have rejected the archaic practice as incompatible with evolving standards of decency.
In the past 12 months the global consensus against the mandatory death penalty has continued to grow. Two more courts, in Kenya and Barbados, have ruled the automatic imposition of a death sentence incompatible with their national constitutions, bringing the total number of countries where The Death Penalty Project has successfully brought or supported constitutional challenges to the mandatory death penalty to 13 nations. As a direct consequence, thousands have been removed from death rows around the world.
We look forward to continuing to support efforts to end the mandatory death penalty and are hopeful that movement away from this practice will continue. For instance, there are promising signs in Malaysia, where the new government is exercising leadership and has pledged to abolish mandatory death sentencing.
Nevertheless, even with discretionary sentencing it is impossible to guard against arbitrariness in the application of death penalty. The experience of India, taking just one example, shows how judicial discretion can give way to a lethal lottery, where the decision to impose the death penalty depends significantly on who is hearing the case. Stringent sentencing guidelines and adherence to safeguards may provide some protection for those facing capital charges but ultimately, whether the sentence is mandatory or discretionary, it is impossible to ensure that the death penalty is applied consistently and without arbitrariness, discrimination or error. Despite this, it is clear that moving away from the mandatory death penalty is a step in the right direction on the road towards complete abolition of capital punishment.