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Opinion: The Endles Death Penalty Debate

As the US carried out its 1,000th execution since capital punishment was reintroduced in 1976, catapulting the issue back into public debate, DW's Peter Philipp takes a look at global attitudes towards the death penalty.

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An act of barbarity to some, a fair sentence to others

Just hours after Australian drug runner Nguyen Tuong Van was hanged at Changi prison in Singapore, convicted killer 57-year-old Kenneth Lee Boyd was put to death by lethal injection in North Carolina after 11 years on death row for the murder of his estranged wife and her father in 1988.

Hinrichtung in Singapur Sarg

The coffin of Ngyuen Tuong Van

Over 100 demonstrators gathered outside the jail in Raleigh to protest the punishment -- the 1,000th execution carried out in the US since 1976, when the Supreme Court overturned a ban introduced four years previously.

Re n ewed debate

Two executions in one day, and they're only the thin end of the wedge. The number of executions taking place around the world is unknown, and will remain so. In China, some 3,400 people are put to death every year -- that's almost 10 a day. As for the international statistics, Amnesty International reports that approximately 3,797 death sentences were issued in 25 countries in 2004, and 7,395 executions carried out in 64 states.

Öffentliche Hinrichtung im Iran

An execution in Iran

Today's two cases have already triggered renewed debate on the ethics of capital punishment. But this discussion has been going round in circles for decades, without ever getting anywhere. Opinion is simply too divided. Moreover, cultural and religious differences are not the only obstacles to reaching a consensus on the pros and cons of the death penalty.

The Christia n co n tradictio n

Even though the Fifth Commandment was "Thou shalt not kill," the death penalty was common practice in Christian societies until relatively recently, and still enjoys broad acceptance in the US, a deeply God-fearing nation.

In fact, Christians tend to be capital punishment's most fervent supporters, basing their defense on the Bible itself and pointing to Genesis.

"Whoever sheds man's blood, his blood will be shed by man," it says. "For God made man in his own image."

The argume n ts

Clearly, if religious arguments fail to cut any ice in the anti-capital punishment debate even within the Christian world, they aren't going to add any clarity to debates conducted between the West and other societies. Ultimately, however, the arguments are not always religious or cultural ones.

Proteste gegen Todesstrafe in Indien

Anti-capital punishment protestors

Opponents frequently cite the purely practical aspect that the sentence is irreversible, and it may later transpire the convict was innocent. Others argue that the task of the justice system is not to avenge a crime but to re-socialize criminals. Its supporters, meanwhile, insist that many offenders cannot ever be re-socialized, that they are not the responsibility of the state and that the death penalty is an effective deterrent -- although criminal statistics have yet to corroborate the latter.

In general, those that oppose and those that support the death penalty are pretty much fifty-fifty. It exists in 75 countries, a conditional death penalty is operated in a further 11, while 86 countries have abolished it. The debate will continue to rage, and agreement will never be reached -- not least because of the inevitable discrepancies between crimes. A child murderer cannot be compared to a drug-runner, a serial killer cannot be compared to a bank robber, nor a rapist to a war criminal.

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