While recent global efforts to save an Iranian woman, Sakineh, from being stoned to death have revealed a widespread and profound disdain for the death sentence, it is still a reality in many countries around the world.
Death penalty opponents say the sentence is inhumane
Article six of the 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, clearly states that "every human being has the inherent right to life." A rights activist's say is abused through capital punishment, which is still practiced in countries including the US, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Japan.
Once a year on October 10th human rights groups work together to draw attention to the horrors of judicial killings. They call it World Day Against the Death Penalty, and hope their actions will ultimately lead to the total abolition of the ultimate sentence.
And according to an Amnesty International report monitoring capital punishment in 2009, they are on the right track. The paper says a total of 95 countries have now abolished the practice outright, with a further nine nations reserving the right to use it during war time only.
An additional 35 states where the death penalty is officially allowed by law, have not resorted to its use for at least a decade.
Hanging is still used as a means of judicial execution
As Italian anti capital punishment activist Mario Morazzitti told Deutsche Welle, that is progress indeed.
"The death penalty has always been normal in world history," he said, adding that only 23 countries had abolished it by the 1970s. "But over the last 30 years we have had this dramatic change, Europe has become the first continent in the world to be without the death penalty."
Although Amnesty recorded no judicial executions at all throughout the European Union and the other countries on the continent in 2009, the situation has since changed. In March of this year two men were executed in Belarus, the only nation in Europe which has not abolished the death penalty.
The Council of Europe and the European Union have repeatedly called on Belarus to change its laws, but the government in Minsk insists that is not what the people want, and cites a 1996 referendum, in which a majority of 80 percent of the population voted to retain capital punishment as proof.
But Belarusian human rights activist Ales Beljazkij says the real problem is one of failing political will.
"The fact is that the public is divided over that issue, in two equally large camps, but the government position is obvious," Baljazkij told Deutsche Welle. "The government keeps insisting on that referendum from the 1990s. They rule out changing the legislation from back then."
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko favors the death penalty
An independent poll conducted earlier this year suggested that 39 percent of Belorusian citizens would like to see a change in the legislation, while 48 are happy to keep things as they are. But Andrea Huber of Amnesty International says issues of life or death should not be determined by survey results.
"Politicians are the ones who can influence opinion and convince people that the death penalty is not the right way to go," she told Deutsche Welle. "People can be convinced that the dealth penalty is not a good idea and even not effective to fight crime."
In the absence of an out-and-out ban, she would like to see a moratorium, a suspension of the death penalty. But the government in Minsk is not interested, and for many years, it was not alone.
In 1998, the EU tried to get the UN General Assembly to pass a draft resolution calling for a worldwide ban on the death penalty. The motion was blocked, not only by China and the US, but by many former European colonies in Africa and Asia as well.
"There was a strong opposition saying 'this is a neo-colonialist idea of human rights and it can interfere with internal affairs,'" Morazzitti said.
But then in 2007, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling on states which upheld the death penalty to declare a moratorium in a bid to move closer to full abolition. Like all UN resolutions, it was not binding, but its very existence has brought about change. Only two African countries - Sudan and Botswana - out of 57 carried out executions in 2009.
An alternative to death
The picture in Asia and the Middle East, however, is somewhat bleaker. Of all the 714 executions recorded by Amnesty International in 2009, more than 600 were carried out in Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And that is not even the worst of it. The human rights organization estimates that China, which refuses to make its own records public, was likely to have carried out "thousands of executions" last year.
By contrast to Chinese secrecy, killings carried out in Saudi Arabia and Iran are done so in public so as to act as a deterrent to political oppositionists and anyone deemed a threat to public moral and domestic stability. And to prove the lengths to which they are willing to go, last year both countries flagrantly violated civil rights in sentencing minors to death.
Author: Andreas Zumach/Markian Ostaptschuk (tkw)
Editor: Rob Mudge