The death penalty is a Commonwealth problem


The Commonwealth lags behind global trends on abolition, but taking an official stance against the death penalty would put it back on the international stage. Français

David Kaner
23 July 2015

Last year, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared: “The death penalty has no place in the 21st century.”

But it appears that many leaders of the 53 Commonwealth countries—who will gather in Malta for their biennial meeting in November—didn’t get that memo.

Nine of these leaders head governments that regularly execute their own citizens. Twenty-six more hail from states that are abolitionist “in practice” but retain capital punishment in their legal code. The organization’s most-populous countries—India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh—have all hanged prisoners in the past three years.

The Commonwealth consists largely of former colonies of the United Kingdom—a nation that, while expanding its empire across the globe, sanctioned hundreds of executions under the infamous “Bloody Code”. Yet, while the UK itself abolished capital punishment in the 1960s, the brutal legacy of imperial justice lives on in the legal systems of dozens of now-independent countries.

This group of states has lagged markedly behind global trends towards abolition of the death penalty. While 19 countries have barred capital punishment in the past decade, bringing the total number of abolitionist states to 103, only two were members of the Commonwealth. The share of fully abolitionist countries is nearly 45% lower within the Commonwealth than outside it.

The Commonwealth Caribbean is particularly at odds with regional norms. Nearly two-thirds of the countries with death penalty laws in the Western Hemisphere are members of the Commonwealth.

The picture is not exactly encouraging elsewhere in the world. In Asia, not a single member state has abolished the death penalty. In Africa, the region with the highest number of Commonwealth countries, only a third have abolished it.


Demotix/Tahir Iqbal (All rights reserved)

Pakistanis protest the death penalty in Islamabad.

This year may prove to be the deadliest in recent memory. Last December, in the wake of the Peshawar school massacre, Pakistan partially lifted its moratorium on executions for terrorism charges; in March, the ban was ended entirely. The country has executed more than 100 individuals since December, making it one of the world’s most-frequent executioners.

In addition, the Maldives and Papua New Guinea, neither of which has executed a prisoner since the 1950s, have both taken legislative steps to resume hangings this year. The government of Trinidad and Tobago has also announced its desire to reintroduce executions.

But could there be a Commonwealth remedy to this disproportionately Commonwealth problem?

Anti-death penalty activists should look to the continent hosting the Heads of Government Meeting this autumn for inspiration. Europe leads the world in abolitionism: of its 49 independent states, all but one has ended the use of capital punishment.

This remarkable accomplishment is due in part to a decades-long effort to make opposition to the death penalty a pan-European value—and to enshrine that commitment at the intergovernmental level. In 1983, the European Convention on Human Rights was amended with a protocol barring the death penalty except in wartime. In 1998 this prohibition was made total. Abolition of the death penalty is a prerequisite for membership in the Council of Europe, which led directly to the moratorium on its use in Russia in 1996. Additionally, EU members are now legally bound by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union to refrain from capital punishment.

While Europe has led the way, intergovernmental efforts in other regions of the world have confirmed this growing global consensus. In the Americas, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has been a prominent pro-abolition voice, and was responsible for the removal of capital punishment from Argentina’s military code. In Africa, where the use of capital punishment has declined markedly in recent years, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights is slated to propose a protocol to the African Union’s primary human rights document, which would call for full abolition on the continent.

Few abuses strike at the core of 'the dignity of all human beings' and the 'universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated' human rights outlined in the Commonwealth Charter like capital punishment.  Few abuses strike at the core of “the dignity of all human beings” and the “universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated” human rights outlined in the Commonwealth Charter like capital punishment. Moving towards an official Commonwealth stance against the death penalty would put it back in the vanguard of intergovernmental organizations and make it—for the first time in years—a bold, principled presence on the international stage.

This need not entail a demand for immediate abolition. Building on the approach of the UN General Assembly, the Commonwealth Secretary-General could instead encourage retentionist member states to take the intermediate steps of implementing a moratorium, reducing the number of offences eligible for death sentences and ensuring minimum due process in capital trials.

The Commonwealth could also leverage its global platform and technical expertise in legal affairs and governance to help make abolition a norm for member states, much as it has done in recent decades for elections. In many countries, the death penalty debate suffers from a lack of information; in India, for instance, the first major national study of capital punishment (which found extreme bias in the application of sentences) was only completed last year. The Commonwealth, in partnership with member states like the United Kingdom and New Zealand, that include abolition as a foreign policy goal, could provide both a forum and assistance for policymakers seeking justice system reform.

Finally, the organization needs to support and coordinate efforts among its most underutilized resource: civil society and professional organizations. The Commonwealth’s list of accredited organizations alone includes three broad-based human rights organizations, multiple NGO networks and associations of lawyers, magistrates, law reform agencies and legislative drafters.

These groups (some of which are already engaged in anti-death penalty work) would be natural partners in a pan-Commonwealth drive to end capital punishment. While the Commonwealth Secretariat often talks of a “Commonwealth Family”, it limits its own reach, capacity and relevance by—as CHRI finds in a forthcoming report for the Malta summit—failing to sufficiently engage the vibrant web of civil society actors in member states. This campaign would be an excellent opportunity to put its relationship with the “Commonwealth of the People” on a more productive footing.

Ultimately, the Commonwealth will not be the primary vehicle for anti-death penalty activism. This is a fight that will be fought and won at the domestic level. But as we’ve witnessed in Europe and in other regions, making capital punishment anathema at the intergovernmental level can have a profound effect. If the Commonwealth wants to be the values-driven organization it claims to be, one that earns the respect of citizens by standing for their human rights, it must work for a 21st century in which the death penalty truly has no place.


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