Capital Punishment as the issue of Human Rights

At the dawn of the 21st century death penalty was considered as a cruel and inhuman punishment by most civilized nations. It has been abolished de jure or de facto by 106 nations, 30 countries have abolished it since 1990. However, death penalty continues to be commonly applied in many nations. China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United States and Iran are the most prolific executioners in the world.

The reasons why many countries have abolished the death penalty vary. For some nations, it was a broader understanding of human rights. Spain abandoned the last vestiges of its death penalty in 1995, stating that: "the death penalty has no place in the general penal system of advanced, civilized societies . . . What more degrading or afflictive punishment can be imagined than to deprive a person of his life . . . ?"

Defining the death penalty as a human rights issue is a critical first step, but one resisted by countries that aggressively use the death penalty. When the United Nations General Assembly considered a resolution in 1994 to restrict the death penalty and encourage a moratorium on executions, Singapore asserted that "capital punishment is not a human rights issue." In the end, 74 countries abstained from voting on the resolution and it failed.

However, for an increasing number of countries the death penalty is a critical human rights issue. In 1997, the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights approved the resolution stating that the "abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and to the progressive development of human rights." That resolution was confirmed in the subsequent resolutions by a call for a restriction of offenses for which the death penalty can be imposed and for a moratorium on all executions.

The European Union has made the abolition of the death penalty a precondition for the entry into the Union, resulting in the halting of executions in many East European countries which applied for the membership. Russia commuted the death sentences of over 700 people on death row, and is considering the legislative changes leading to the abolition of death penalty. Poland has voted to end the death penalty, as has Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro. Most recently, Turkey moved closer to admission to the European Union when its Parliament voted to abolish the death penalty except in times of war.

Challenging death penalty is not seen solely as an internal matter among the nations. Many European countries, along with Canada, Mexico, and South Africa, have resisted extraditing persons to countries like the United States unless there are assurances that the death penalty will not be sought. The Council of Europe has threatened to revoke the U.S.'s observer status unless it takes action on the death penalty.

The member states of the Council of Europe have established Protocol 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights calling for the abolition of the death penalty. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that was adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, says: Article3 " Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Article 6. " Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law."

The Universal Declaration is a pledge among nations to promote fundamental rights as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace. The rights it proclaims are inherent in every human being. They are not privileges that may be granted by governments for good behavior and they may not be withdrawn for bad behavior. Fundamental human rights limit what a state may do to a man, woman or child. No matter what reason a government gives for executing prisoners and what method of execution is used, the death penalty cannot be separated from the issue of human rights. The movement for abolition cannot be separated from the movement for human rights. So, the Universal Declaration as well as the European Convention recognizes each person’s right to life and states further that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". In my view the death penalty surely violates these rights.

Ksenia Alekseeva, Faculty of World Politics

Death penalty - the victims' view

Death penalty is one of the most widely discussed issues nowadays. The whole range of attitudes can be divided into 2 big groups: PRO and CONTRA. People who act as the opponents to the death penalty argue that it is an inhumane, severe and barbaric method of execution. They often claim that only God can take away the life of a person, so the opponents of death penalty are in favor of commuting it to life imprisonment.

The supporters of death penalty say that it is the only deterrent to violence and only execution will give a criminal something to ponder about before committing a crime. Another argument PRO is that the families of the victims usually want the retribution their relatives’ death… But this is not always true. Some families support the idea of death penalty but others do not. Here are the opinions of the people who lost their parents, children etc.

The special non-government organization Murder Victims' Families For Human Rights arguing against death penalty cites a great number of people who lost their relatives and are still opposed to death penalty. Anthony Aversano who had lost his father in the attacks of September 11,2001 testified against the death penalty during Moussaoui’s trial. Zacarias Moussaoui is the only person tried in the United States in connection with the September 11th terrorist attacks. Aversano says: “I know my Dad would want me to live my life with fullness and pride, so if I am going to give my life to anything, I am going to dedicate it to love, understanding, compassion and ending the cycles of violence.”

Michael Berg’s 26-year-old son Nick, an American businessman working in Iraq, was beheaded there in 2004 but very soon the murderer of Nick was killed during a U.S. airstrike in June 2006. “Having lost my son in Iraq, I’ve become even more sensitized to the awfulness of the waste of human life, and I’ve become far more active against the idea of using violence to solve problems that should be solved in other ways. As long as people use violence to combat violence, we will always have violence.” Mark B. whose daughter was raped and killed by a sex-maniac also contradicts the application of death penalty. He says: "If I find this bustard, I’ll kill him myself. I just don't want the state doing it for me."

As you can see there are a lot of people who don’t want revenge though they have lost their relatives. These people don’t feel better after the murderers were executed, because it didn’t bring their kinsmen back. They all claim that we should be more kind-hearted and that violence causes still more violence.

Nikolay Balan, Faculty of World Politics

World religions and capital punishment

Everyone fears punishment;
everyone fears death, just as you do.
Therefore do not kill or cause to kill.
Everyone fears punishment;
everyone loves life, as you do.
Therefore do not kill or cause to kill.


Undoubtedly, our world is getting more secularized these days, but still trying to find solution to some ambiguous problems we tend to appeal to religious tenets as the indisputable authority in moral questions. This can be referred to the argument on death penalty. How are the morality and the necessity of this extreme measure of punishment regarded in world religions? Firstly, I personally have always considered religions to be the regulations which emphasize the need of compassion and mercy and put the sanctity of human life on the top of the list. However I turned out to be mistaken.

Buddhism seems to take the firmest position as death penalty is clearly  inconsistent with Buddhist teaching which stresses non-violence and compassion for all life. The First Precept requires individuals to abstain from injuring or killing any living creature. Yet the doctrine and the reality are surprisingly contradictory in the countries with prevailing Buddhist population because they all apply capital punishment.

As for Christianity, it takes the most indeterminate stand. On the one hand the Old Testament suggests that God created death penalty and it specifies 36 capital crimes including idolatry and blasphemy, as well as murder. Even The New Testament pervaded with ideas of forgiveness, seems to take the right of the state to execute offenders for granted. Jesus Christ himself told Pilate that the power to crucify Christ was given to him by God. On the other hand there is a commandment saying “Thou shalt kill” which definitely opposes all murder. Christian Churches throughout the history accepted capital punishment but John Paul II in 1995 wrote: “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are rare, if not practically non-existent”. Perhaps these words can be regarded as Catholic turn to more lenient penalty measures.

Islam accepts capital punishment if it is prescribed by justice and the law. Being a very practical religion Islam provides Muslims with clear instructions concerning capital offences and the procedure. Two major groups of crimes punishable by death are named in Islamic law: intentional murder and spreading mischief in the land which includes treason or apostasy (when one leaves the faith and turns against it), terrorism, piracy of any kind, rape, adultery, homosexual activity. One particular point is related to murder: the victim’s family is given the right to choose whether to insist on death penalty application for the killer or not.

To sum it up, the religions whose major objective is, as I see it, to advocate humane values, tend to do it in a rather harsh way. The ideas that only God has the right to judge and that even the most desperate sinner should be given the second chance simply don’t work. The society takes upon itself the right to administer the supreme justice by depriving a person of his life. Only Buddhism appears to understand that death penalty compromises not only the offender but the chastener as well. Why is he obliged to carry a burden of murder from then on? Violence in any form can not be justified because the good is impossible to achieve by evil means.

Maria Golovacheva, Faculty of World Politics

Killing people in cold blood has always been wrong. Only God should create and destroy life
(Thoughts from the cell)

Another day is coming again…. The same day as yesterday and the day before yesterday…. I am walk across and across the cell, trying to memorize each crack on ceiling, each wrinkle on my blanket, waiting for death…

Will it be a penalty or just a death? I don’t know, the same way as I don’t know why I am passing my last days, trying to keep in the mind the view of my cell. Maybe because both things are easier: it’s easier to call a murder -- a penalty, and it’s easier for me to think about life – not about death. But the thoughts about death come to me every morning, and by the afternoon I think, that I am ready to die… But the night comes again I am thinking about life and about those things that I could have done, if I hadn’t made that mistake…

Was it only one mistake that has brought me here, or were there some other ones? Maybe the first one was when I started smoking at 12?.. But the final mistake was fatal for me, because I’ve become a murderer. This mistake was not a simple one, as life and death are not simple either. And it’s all beyond the level of understanding, which people could reach. It’s the level of The God.

Dostoevsky has written that when he was standing on the scaffold, he suddenly saw another power, and another essence of things opened to him. So he understood the real reasons and the real answers. A man understands noting about the world during his life… but sometimes he understands a little bit just before his death.

Ilya Mironov, Faculty of World Politics

World religions and Capital Punishment

In this survey I will touch upon the issue of death penalty and the way major religions deal with it.

Let’s start with Buddhism. The holy Buddhist book Dhammapada prescribes to abstain from destruction of life. It says that “Everyone fears punishment; everyone fears death, just as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill. Everyone fears punishment; everyone loves life, as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill.” It is considered by many philosophers as the prohibition of taking any measures of deterrence that might cause the death of the offender.

Let’s move on to Christianity. All of us know that the execution of Christ is the centerpoint of Christian cosmology. It is a clear example of capital punisment. The followers of Christ still find the traces of his pain and agony on a number of artifacts. But The Holy Bible does not make a clear statement about capital punishment. In The Old Testament it is stated: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”. And if you look in The New Testament you will find the following statement of Jesus: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” or another one “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven”. Some clear discrepancies, don’t you see?

What about Hinduism? What do we know about it? Briefly speaking, Hinduism gives us the evidence of both permitting and forbidding capital punishment. It preaches the so called ahimsa (non-violence), but a the same time it teaches that soul cannot be kill and death is limited only for the material body. The soul is reborn into another body.

Islam. The basic principle of the Koran reads: “Do not kill a Soul which Allah has made sacred except through the due process of law” In Islam, the victim and/or the victim's family are the judges for all crimes; they decide what the punishment shall be under the supervision of a jurist.

Judaism. The official teachings of Judaism approve the death penalty in principle but the standard of proof required for the application of death penalty is extremely stringent, and in practice, it has been abolished by various Talmudic decisions, making the situations in which a death sentence could be passed effectively impossible and hypothetical.

Max Krylov, Faculty of World Politics



© Just English 2007