Capital Punishment

Topic Block 4: Capital Punishment

The death penalty was once used widely across nearly all societies as a form of punishment for the worst of crimes. In the early 20n th century, hundreds of thousands were executed for political reasons. Be it as a direct result of this or not, attitudes towards the death penalty have changed. Today, most countries have abolished it, recognizing a human’s basic right to life. Today, 103 countries have taken the abolitionist stance, entirely banning capital punishment. 56 countries still retain the death penalty, including for “general” crimes. Further 30 countries retain the death penalty but haven’t used it in ten years, and are most likely moving towards abolition. And finally, six more countries have abolished the death penalty, with very specific exceptions, such as war-crimes. This data comes from Amnesty International, an NGO that, among other activities, keeps tabs on the amount of death sentences and executions. In 2016, at least 1’032 people were executed. Most of these executions took place in China and I ran. This data is not always easy to track, as certain countries, often times those that use the death penalty most of all, publish little to no official information.

Historical Context
The first recorded death penalty laws date back to the Code of King Hammurabi in Babylon, around 1700 B.C. At the time, a list of 25 different crimes were punishable by death. As the centuries progressed, many different civilizations and empires adopted various laws. In pretty much all cases, capital punishment was enforced, but the lists of crimes varied from place to place, from era to era. The term “draconian”, meaning something is excessively harsh and severe, comes from a time-period in ancient Athens (ca. 7 th century B.C.), when laws were written down by Draco, as a response to unfair interpretations of the oral laws of the time. In this Draconian constitution, almost everything was punishable by death, even minor theft, for example. What also varies throughout history is the way capital punishment may be administered. Especially in Medieval times, particularly cruel ways of executing criminals were used, such as boiling or burning at the stake.

The abolitionist movement began in the 18 th century in Europe on the back of essays by intellectuals questioning, for example, the permissibility of the state to take a life in the first place. These writings had robust argumentations and led to the abolishment of the death penalty in Austria and Tuscany. Soon thereafter, capital punishment reforms were attempted also in the United States, but there wasn’t quite enough support until the 19 th century, when public opinion started to sway in favor of the abolitionist movement in certain states. By the late 1800’s, several countries across the world
had already wholly banned the death penalty.

The first half of the 20 th century saw the most brutal and global conflicts in human history. Soon after being set up, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which, among other things, proclaims a “right to life”. General sentiment has shifted in favor of abolitionism around the globe – most countries have also now entirely abolished it. The UN stands behind the abolitionist movement, and has repeatedly called for moratoria on the death penalty, with the ultimate goal of having it abolished worldwide. Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary-General, once very clearly remarked: “The death penalty has no place in the 21 st century.”

As already mentioned a few times, most states, especially those in the First World, have abolished the death penalty entirely. And in the developing world, most states have as well, and trends point towards increasing abolishment. One of the most notable countries to still allow capital punishment is the United States of America. On a federal level, it is permitted, but a number of states have abolished it entirely. Pew Research polls indicate that in 2016, 49% of the US population supported the death penalty, a significant drop from 78% in 1996. Two other developed countries, Japan and Singapore, also still use the death penalty.

As you probably already know, the death penalty is a highly controversial issue, especially in a country such as the United States. I will list some of the main arguments for and against the death penalty below:

Pro: Costs: Executing a prisoner who committed a heinous crime and would otherwise be sentence to many years, or life, in prison, is cheaper than keeping them in prison for a life-long sentence. Taxpayers obviously wouldn’t want to pay for sustaining a terrible criminal, would they?

Pro: Deterrence: The argument here is that the death penalty, being the most severe form of punishment imaginable, obviously serves as a strong crime deterrent. Therefore, capital punishment has a preventative function, saving lives.

Pro: Closure for victims’ families, retribution: The death penalty, which should be administered only after rigorous trials, brings closure to victims’ families, and is a retributive measure that stays within the confines of the law, not going as far as revenge might. The death penalty is seen as “retribution within reason.”

Con: Deterrence: A multitude of scientific studies of whether punishment of any form really acts as a deterrent have shown that this is generally not the case (often tested with fines). For the death-penalty specifically, criminals often-times put themselves in significantly heightened danger while committing the crime, so the death penalty is hardly a deterrent there.

Con: Retribution: Honoring a loved one by killing another human being is by many deemed not the right way to handle the issue. Killing a human being as an act of retribution can’t lead to a healthy recovery, much more it promotes a cycle of anger and grief.

Con: Mistakes and Fair Trial: Too often has it happened that an innocent person was killed, and then later on, it was uncovered that this person was wholly innocent. A prisoner can be pardoned, but there is no going back from the death penalty, and posthumous revelations of innocence only lead to a cycle of anger.

Legal Situation
Legally speaking, the UN can, of course, not tell a country to abolish the death penalty; that would be infringement upon state sovereignty. However, there are still many legal aspects to be taken into consideration when discussing the death penalty. The question of what crimes even are “worthy” of the death-penalty, if at all, is often raised. In many cases, this turns out to be a moral grey-area, and this varies from country to country, from one society to the next.

Fair and appropriate legal representation is also a topic frequently discussed. How can the defendant be sure to receive a good attorney in court? After all, the defendant’s life is on the line here. It is impossible to know how many people have been sentenced to death that, with a different attorney, might not have been. Therefore it is of utmost importance to have certain safeguards in place to prevent such speculations or unfair trials.

As more and more scientific studies point towards genetic defects, extra Y-chromosomes, increased levels of testosterone, or other mental and biological factors being at least partially responsible for aggressive behavior, which may then have led people to commit crimes that got them executed, the question arises: How does one deal with this? Are those criminals treatable? Is it fair to execute them for something they were born with, something they can’t influence?

And finally, there is the question of who gets sentenced to death? Minors, pregnant women, people with mental illnesses – there are many groups which should definitely be considered to be kept exempt from capital punishment, for one reason or another.

There are many more legal implications that go along with the debate around capital punishment, I just mentioned some that came to mind and that seem most in need of addressing. The rest is up to you! Here are some things to keep in mind for our debates:

  • When debating, you should stick to your country’s position, of course. But don’t forget, we are here to debate, we are here to find compromises – especially for this topic, there is much potential!
  • This is no new topic to the UN, its many facets have been debated many times over and been subject of talks at the UN a lot as well. Therefore I recommend more than ever to look up past UN action, which includes several calls for a moratorium on capital punishment, and let yourselves be inspired…
  • And finally, have a good time. I mean, we are discussing a rather sobering topic, but we are still at MUN. And you should always be having a good time. But now even more so – as exam season is slowly creeping up on us and the year is nearing an end, let us ring it out with some great debate!

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