Death has no appeal

The debate on the death penalty in India has gained new momentum, and the European Union (EU) is following the discussions with great interest. Under the visionary and far-sighted leadership of thinkers and politicians, Europe has come a long way from being the continent where the guillotine was invented and where death sentences were common under the dictatorships of the first half of the 20th century, to become, today, the only region in the world where the death penalty is no longer applied.

The campaign for the abolition of the death penalty is a trademark international position of the EU. In a nutshell, the EU is opposed to capital punishment in all circumstances and considers that the abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights. We consider the death penalty to be a cruel and inhuman punishment and that we must encourage the growing global trend towards moratoria and ultimately complete abolition.

Many reasons underlie our position. For example, it is clear that the deterrence argument is fallacious. There is no basis to the belief that the death penalty provides deterrent to criminal behaviour. Scientific studies have consistently failed to demonstrate that executions deter people from committing crime any more than long prison sentences. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that the abolition of the death penalty will lead to an increase in crime. On the contrary, there are even some circumstances, and notably terrorist crimes, that might become more likely if associated with the perverse glamour of judicial martyrdom.

Furthermore, it must be highlighted that the application of the death penalty is in many cases arbitrary, depending on such issues as the quality of the available legal representation, the background of the defendant, local or national politics and the inclinations of the judge who happens to preside. Numerous studies from different countries where the death penalty is applied have shown that arbitrary circumstances rather than objectivity can be the determining factor in deciding whether a person lives or is killed. Indeed, no jurisdiction in the world is capable of insuring against such arbitrary factors.

But perhaps the most powerful argument against the death penalty is that any miscarriage of justice which is inevitable in any legal system, including our own ones is irreversible. The great 18th-century French thinker Voltaire put it very simply: "It is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one." Make no mistake: the application of the death penalty by the judicial system is a guarantee that sooner or later an innocent man will be killed. And here I do not even touch upon one of the aspects that has gained prominence in the Indian debate: the discussion about exactly which legal conditions should be fulfilled for the death penalty to be passed.

The arguments proffered in favour of the death penalty do not in our view stand scrutiny. The deterrent fallacy has already been mentioned. The notion that the state should not pay for the upkeep (in prison) of a criminal can surely not be taken seriously (may a human being be exterminated on such petty material grounds?). But perhaps the most common impulse sustaining the death penalty is simply the desire for revenge. Human impulses may be what they are but does it not behove a state to rise above the immediate emotions of humans shocked by the circumstances of a particularly horrendous crime? We believe that it does, and especially so in the absence of other arguments.

The abolition of the death penalty is a pre-requisite for all countries seeking EU membership. In this manner the EU has created a de-facto death penalty-free zone stretching far beyond its own borders, from Iceland in the West to Vladivostok in the East and from Norway in the North to the Southeast of Turkey. This is certainly one of Europe's greatest achievements. The EU is also the first regional body in the world to have adopted rules prohibiting the trade in goods used for capital punishment, as well as the supply of technical assistance related to such goods. Already certain states in the US have had difficulties in applying the death penalty because of our principled stand.

The EU believes that the reasons for eliminating this penalty remain valid in any part of the world. We consider moratoria on executions as an important step towards that aim. Every time this view is tested in the UN, as it was once again recently, we find that it has gained ground. Last month, 110 countries voted with us on this matter, with 39 against and 36 abstentions. We fully believe that with each year that passes more will join us.

Joo Cravinho is the ambassador of the EU to India, Delhi

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