A matter of life and death
Setbacks for opponents of capital punishment, but they are making more progress than meets the eye
Mar 25th 2010 | From The Economist print edition
BELIEVERS in “progress”, or at least those of a mutton-chopped, European variety, hold to a kind of ascent of man. First comes spreading prosperity. Then representative government replaces tyranny. Finally, notions of human rights, social justice and the fallibility of the state extend even to death row, and the judicial terror of capital punishment is ditched. Last year was the first in Europe’s recorded history in which not one person was executed.
On the face of it Asia stacks up not at all well against this achievement. The region accounts for just over half the world’s population. Prosperity has spread, and representative government. But in its application of the death penalty, Asia leads the world. Some 95% of Asians live in jurisdictions that carry out capital punishment, and Asia accounts for over three-quarters of executions worldwide.
South Korea has not carried out a death sentence in 13 years. Yet in late February the Constitutional Court ruled that the death penalty as prescribed in the criminal code did not violate the constitution. This alarms the country’s legal scholars. The 110-odd crimes qualifying for the death penalty include corporate offences and “criminal ideological violations”—a throwback to South Korea’s dictatorial days.
And this month in Taiwan the justice minister, Wang Ching-feng, suddenly resigned. A Buddhist, she fiercely protected the lives of 44 death-row convicts. The president, Ma Ying-jeou, a former Harvard law student, was also thought to oppose capital punishment. But his party, the Kuomintang, is sagging in popularity before year-end elections. Miss Wang’ s stance cost her her job. On March 22nd a new justice minister was sworn in, hinting that the official killing would begin again.
Yet dig a little deeper, and the picture looks different, even hopeful. In December the UN General Assembly votes on calling for a global moratorium on capital punishment. Abolitionists lobbying Asian governments will find a better reception than you might think. Naturally, Asian statistics are skewed by China, alone accounting for over nine-tenths of all Asian executions. But even Chinese executions have seen a precipitous fall. A best guess is that 5,000 were executed in 2008, giving a rate per head of population dozens of times higher than the United States. Yet this represents a drop of two-thirds from a decade earlier.
China’s penchant for execution is explained by a dictatorship which has a low regard for citizens’ rights and uses violence as an instrument of state power. But an official policy of “kill less, kill carefully” is taking root. All capital cases now have to be reviewed by the Supreme Court, which is said to approve only a tenth of cases, a remarkable change, if true. So even in China development seems to have bred a less punitive state. Perhaps a human-rights dialogue between China and the EU, long derided by liberal critics, is actually doing some good.
Another populous country, India, is also “retentionist”, but from 1999 to 2008 it executed just one man. For Asia as a whole, according to David Johnson and Franklin Zimring writing in the online Asia-Pacific Journal, 16 out of 29 jurisdictions have abolished the death penalty, either definitively or in fact, whereas 13 retain it. In January Mongolia, with a history of murky executions, was the latest to declare a moratorium. The death penalty, said President Tsakhia Elbegdorj, was an act of state violence that ran the risk of irrevocable error, and neither deterred criminals nor restored justice to victims’ families.
Even in South Korea and Taiwan, there is probably no profound change of course. Both democracies emerged from mid-century authoritarian rule marked by an orgy of judicial and extra-judicial killings. These are now in the past: one democratic president of South Korea, the late Kim Dae-jung, was himself sentenced to death in 1980, before reprieve. NGOs now lobby for convicts’ rights, and lawyers argue that the issue is not between death-row convicts and the rest of the citizenry but of overweening state power over all.
Like nearly all countries considering abolition, in Taiwan people are overwhelmingly against it, but abolitionists, including Mr Ma’s former Harvard professors, hoped the president would lead from the front. Both countries are concerned about their international reputation, including among Europeans. And each is in soft-power competition for legitimacy with a bloody, authoritarian rival. Before too long, both may fall into the abolitionist camp.
Rich, plural and cruel
Outliers remain. Until recently, rich, sophisticated, peaceable Singapore killed as high a proportion of its population as does China. And in Japan executions have risen sharply in recent years. Quite apart from known miscarriages of justice, the country’s penal habits are chilling. Its death-row inmates, in solitary confinement, are allowed few visits from family or lawyers. They must sit all day on their bed, with rules dictating even their postures, and may not look their guards in the eye. After waiting usually years, they are hung, always during a parliamentary recess, with only a couple of hours’ notice, with the family informed only when it is told to pick up the body. With high rates of mental illness from the stress, this is bureaucratic killing at its cruellest.
How to explain these exceptions to the model of “progress”? Perhaps, Mr Johnson and Mr Zimring argue, by realising that both countries, although structurally pluralistic democracies, have long been in practice under one-party rule. But recently executions in Singapore have fallen by nine-tenths. In Japan the fall from power last year of the Liberal Democratic Party may signal change. The new justice minister, for one, is an abolitionist and has signed no death warrants. Asia has yet to prove those old European dreamers wrong.