On the occasion of The World and Europe Day against the Death Penalty, which has been remembered, since 2003, each year on 10 October, it is always important to remind that capital punishment is and can be used against human rights, that it still exists in our world and - although very rare in Europe or Central Asia - it is there as well a frequent talking point of many who wish to couple it with an abuse of power.
For several centuries now the practice of death penalty has been disputed and gradually abolished as an inhuman, unjust and/or irrational way of punishment. Since the first wave of abolition (during the Enlightment), Europe has witnessed periods in which the death penalty receded and those when it was coming back full scale. Jacobin period in France was its first major comeback. Especially the totalitarian systems of the 20th century (fascism, Nazism and communism) massively applied it. After WW2, United Nations have made efforts to limit it, but the world-wide concesus on its abolition is not yet reached. However, a new wave of abolitionism has wiped it from many countries` statutes, where after, at this moment, 104 countries of the world do not stipulate it in their legislature at all, while dozens of additional ones are „de facto abolitionist“ (i.e. they did not commit any executions during the last ten years and seemingly do not intend to do so).
Proponents of the death penalty („retentionists“) often recall religious reasons, e.g. the fact that some religions embrace or stipulate it. They cite the famous „eye for an eye“ principle. Justice – they say – demands that punishment be equal in size to the committed crime. They suppose that the threat of death penalty deters people from breaching the law. They believe that there are criminals whose correction and resocialization is impossible. In their view, the established social order, security and rule of law might be best protected by the whole variety of penal threats including one which allowed for the elimination from life of those individuals who most severly threatened those values.
On the other hand, opponents of death penalty („abolitionists“), while primarily argumenting secularly and factually, also sometimes invite religious justification for their demands. In one such view, it is inhuman and unfit for people to kill other people (while both were created by a higher being) for whatever reason. Further on, the retributional justice (as advocated by a variety of anti-utilitarian philosophers) might, in theory, be implemented without death penalty (proportionality - and not sheer equality - between crime and punishment is what thereby really matters). Plenty of research has demonstrated that the death penalty did not deter most serious criminals or crimes. And, from the liberal point of view, death penalty puts too much power in the hands of the state. That power might be misused for authoritarian purposes. And it often has been misused so, throughout history, including during the last 100 years. Protection of important social values, to the contrary, requires attempts to correct the worst and most attrocious anti-social behavior. Last but not least, the possibility and irreversibility of a judicial error, due to which an innocent person could be (and not that rarely actually was) executed has been a powerful magnet for many abolitionists. To minimize the possibility of a judicial error, capital trials require so much time (often more than a decade) and financial resources that guarding the guilty assassins (even if realistically uncorrectable) in life imprisonment is less costly than executing them.
Freedom Barometer, a project of FNF which is monitoring the state of freedom in 45 countries of Europe and Central Asia, has so far not dealt with capital punishment. That was because all the encompassed countries have been either de jure or de facto abolitionist.
In Western Europe, the death penalty was gradually abolished between 1945 and 1970s. In the eastern part of Europe, the struggle against the communist system often had at hand the ending of the possibility of a „death in the presence of authorities“ as its important talking point, both as a goal per se and as a means of limiting the omnipotent, monistic, authoritarian governments. For instance, one of the first modern-shape NGOs in communist Yugoslavia, which operated between 1981 and 1984 (when it was banned), was The Association for Combating Capital Punishment. Following the fall of Berlin Wall and the dissolution of Soviet Union, most of the freshly emerging democracies had adopted the principles of the Council of Europe and joined that organization, thus had among other reforms also abolished the death penalty.
However, in spite of the UN, CE and EU efforts, and in spite of the international and national NGOs` (notably Amnesty International`s, especially since 1977) active work on the world-wide ban of death penalty, it still exists in much of the world. There are thousands of executions every year (during 2016, in the entire world outside China 1032, while in China alone more than 1000). Aside of China, India and MENA countries take the biggest toll. In Europe, Belarus is retentionist (four executions in 2016), while Russia, Uzbekistan and (at least in theory) parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina are just de facto (and not de jure) abolitionist.
Worse to it, even in abolitionist countries, demands are often heard that the death penalty is reintroduced. Sometimes it is just an emotional reaction of ordinary people to severe crimes or terrorist attacks that ocure from time to time. But, far more dangerously, the ideas of a reintroduction of death penalty come from the highest ranking politicians. Turkey`s President Erdogan, for instance, after the failed coup attempt as of July 2016, severed his authoritarian rule, limited civil liberties in many fields and among other things has repeatedly argued for a reintroduction of death penalty.
Maintaining the abolitionist environment is essential for freedom in our region. Authoritarianism and populism are anyway in the rise. With the death penalty at hand, the whole range of new threats for political, social or world-view pluralism would emerge. Judiciary is dependent on political or other centers of power, or corrupt to a considerable degree, in many countries of the region. It is also insufficiently professional. Many judicial errors, either deliberate or unwilling, might happen, which would not solidify rule of law but would further weaken it. Human rights would suffer another huge blow. Many European principles – liberal in their core – e.g. that human life is sacred, that learning, correction and improvement is the right path to progress, or that government is there to protect lives of its citizens and not take them away, etc, would thus be abandoned.
While this year`s October 10 is observed, may it not be forgotten that the darkest hours of European history, so much different from the EU`s experience of the last 60-70 years, have been marked by the extensive use of death penalty, inhuman per se but additionally terrific when misused for anti-democratic, anti-liberal and anti-individualistic goals, by dictatorial or authoritarian governments.