World Audit Hot Topics

Capital Punishment

Such has been the concern of civilized societies, spurred perhaps by the turn of the century to have a clearly identifiable moral code, that the issue of capital punishment has become a great divide between those forward looking ‘progressive’ states and the rest (we list the categories below), except that such a divide is illusory – it doesn’t work!

The USA with one of the most admirable democratic systems in the world competes annually on an executions body-count with the Peoples Republic of China that has no democracy at all.  Meanwhile membership of such an institution as the Council of Europe requires that member states repudiate the death penalty. States, not previously suspected of overmuch sensitivity about citizens rights, such as Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan,have effectively signed up for at the least, not carrying out such sentences.  Internationally, the dispute makes strange bedfellows. In April 1999, the USA in company with Rwanda, China and Sudan voted against the UN Commission on Human Rights resolution calling for a moratorium on all executions, which was supported by all the European Union nations. Iran, Iraq and the USA have little common ground except their frequent use of the death penalty.

The debate continues at both an objective and subjective level and ‘HOT TOPICS’ aims to provide data, closely reasoned argument and perhaps inevitably, emotionally driven opinion.  But the origins of this extreme form of sanction are as old as humanity.  From the earliest times as anthropological research tells us, ritual executions have taken place of certain individuals, prisoners of war certainly; but also societal misfits without doubt and those that from within, most threatened society - the homicides.  How do we know this? Judaeo-Christian religions carrying the experience of millennia are consistent in their codification of such crime and its punishment, best summarised in the concept of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.

In the case of Islam, sharia law even prescribes a tariff of the manner of execution for various infringements ranging from stoning (for adultery- look out western world), to beheading by sword.  China routinely executes malefactors, often as a public show, for a wide variety of economic and other crimes; and several states, mainly Southeast Asian, employ the death penalty for drug smuggling.  The UK curiously still has on the statute book this ultimate sanction for sabotage in naval dockyards and espionage, although except in wartime, it is not possible to imagine its use.  Espionage in wartime and during the ‘cold war’ was frequently in many states dealt with by execution, often extra-judicial.

The USA federally defers to its 50 states on this issue, each of which can in practice, accept or reject the use of this penalty.  It is, however, universal there that it is only relevant in cases of murder, but there are many murders and a lot of citizens die each year at the hands of elected states’ governments.  The USA is undoubtedly a violent society, a fact not unrelated to the ease, in which the most lethal firearms can be obtained by responsible and irresponsible people alike.

Proponents and opponents alike would probably agree that historically, a staging post towards reaching civilized maturity was for the state to effectively contract to administer justice with clear cut rules, in return for individuals undertaking not to pursue individual revenge – so avoiding the inevitable cycle of retribution still common, as in some of the Balkan countries.  A clinically objective trial is envisaged which, if followed by a sentence of death, is to be efficiently and dispassionately performed by agents of the state, or such at least is the theory.

Many individuals, although not necessarily their lawmakers, would at first thought and without exposure to contrary argument, opt for the ‘eye for an eye’ approach to the death penalty.  There are however numerous problems with that which in the worst cases amount to those nightmare examples where justice miscarried, and a citizen subsequently found to be innocent was lawfully executed as guilty.  In such cases this must amount to institutional murder of a victim of false justice. Against whom in such circumstances should the relatives of the deceased have redress – an apology would hardly do - the judge, the police, the prosecutor, the jury members, the executioner, the head of state?  For those that rely on the ‘eye for an eye’ dictum, what then should be the appropriate measure of retribution for justice to be done and from whom and by whom exacted?

It is this genuinely awful problem of the dangers of our state killing an innocent that has convinced many that the risks cannot justify execution when lifelong incarceration, which is after all reversible, will remove the individual danger from society.  That however is not an argument that would begin to interest Islamic fundamentalists who presumably would not accept that in their system justice could ever miscarry.  In China it is normally quite enough to establish guilt that the state has brought the prosecution.  Trials there are usually just about the severity or otherwise of the sentence, itself a matter of public policy at any time.

The most robust, self-confident citizens of any country anywhere may be those of the USA.  Yet homicide is at far greater levels there than in most societies, certainly in those where the rule of law applies.  Acceptance of capital punishment similarly seems far more widespread than in other prosperous western nations, and this may well be due to genuine fear of inadequate deterrence and its knock-on effects.  It should not be forgotten however that it remains in the memory of many Americans alive today, that the rule of law itself succumbed to mob rule.  Horrific extra-judicial lynchings, usually of black men for alleged non-capital offences, were numerous and widespread in many parts of the nation.  So arguments such as the dangers of killing a wrongly convicted innocent were then completely submerged in bloodlust, the emotional rush to ‘vengeance’ by death, and alarmingly may still be so, even if arrived at by due process of law.

New forms of evidence such as DNA testing in the heinous crime of rape-murder, will help during the trial process to further sift the innocent from the guilty, but cases have for some time been emerging where it seems possible to establish beyond doubt the paradox that certain executed individuals were wrongly yet lawfully killed.  The capital punishment argument and developments relating to it are constantly subject to such facts resulting from new technologies.  The sources given below hopefully bring together the key facts and current positions on both sides of this debate.

Research Documents

Use of the Death Penalty Worldwide: (lists all categories of nations – those retaining the death penalty and those abolitionist, ‘de jure’ and ‘de facto.’)

The Death Penalty in 1999 Year End Report: (Detailed month by month mainly US updates from Death Penalty Information Center).

Death Sentences and Executions in 1999: (Amnesty International with worldwide data).

Arguments for Life and Death: (From Simon Fraser University – academic work from Canada).

Other sites

Against Moratorium (A Texas voice of Victims Rights with many related links).

Yahoo! - the Death Penalty, supporting views

Embassy of France - The Death Penalty Issue


Amnesty International makes a worldwide argument against the death penalty without exception. (Available in English, Spanish and Italian).

The Case Against the Death Penalty from the American Civil Liberties Union

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