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Stabroek News

The penalty of death
published: Sunday | February 24, 2008

Robert Buddan, Contributor

Jamaica's murder rate increased by 17 per cent in 2007, to a level behind only the record year of 2005. The two most murderous years, in other words, were two of the last three years. Last year, 65 children, 146 women and 19 policemen were among those murdered. This year has started badly too. At the end of January, the murder rate remained alarming. No wonder the latest Gleaner/Johnson polls show an increasingly frustrated Jamaican population calling in even greater numbers for the death penalty. One of the strongest areas of consensus in Jamaica is that hanging must be resumed. Seventy-nine per cent felt this way in mid-January.

Bolstering this frustration is a 2006 survey of Jamaica's political culture showing that 24 per cent supported vigilante activities in cases where the State had failed to prosecute and punish criminals. This was the highest level of support for all acts of 'civil disobedience' like blocking roads, illegally occupying private property, or taking over buildings. In fact, Jamaicans were not strong supporters of these. Vigilante justice, though supported by just a quarter of the respondents, was the most justifiable act of civil disobedience to them.


However, while Jamaican opinion is growing in favour of the death penalty the tide of world opinion is turning against it. The United Nations introduced a resolution for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty in December 2007. One hundred and four countries supported the resolution, with 54 voting against and 29 abstaining.

The tide of public opinion is turning against the Caribbean as a whole. In 2007, the World Bank's study of crime in the Caribbean found that the region had the highest murder rate of any region in the world. Drugs were the main cause and guns were the main weapons. But the region is being isolated on the death penalty even as the sentiments in favour of the penalty of death grow and the murder rate defeats the best efforts.

Guyana is the only South American country practising the death penalty. That country has experienced two massacres this year alone, with 11 and 12 persons murdered in two separate events due to the drug problem and growing evidence that Guyana cannot manage. Guyana has more than 20 persons on death row, sentencing five more in 2007. It voted against the UN resolution for a moratorium on the death penalty.

The Caribbean region voted against the UN resolution. The resolution passed, but is not binding. The representative from Antigua and Barbuda spoke on behalf of 13 Caribbean states, including Jamaica, to say, "Given the reality of the situation in the Caribbean, the countries ... are forced to question the intended argument of the co-sponsors of this resolution. Caribbean opponents of the resolution have not contravened any laws, international or domestic, by maintaining the death penalty in their domestic laws."

The argument made by the proposers is that countries that practise the death penalty are barbaric, law-breaking State killers. One could hardly say that Antigua and Barbuda is any of these. Barbados would not fit this description either. The Barbados representative argued that any attempt by a country or group of country to impose its values on other UN member states would be an infringement of national sovereignty.

Singapore, a country which many admire for its tough discipline, say that its opposition to the death penalty was on grounds of criminal justice and was not seen as a human rights issue the way it is in Europe. This is how the Caribbean sees it as well.

Having said all of this, the worldwide trend is against the death penalty. The European sponsors of the UN resolution intend to introduce it each year to attract more and more votes. Amnesty International (AI) says that some 133 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice (Jamaica has not practised it since 1989) and only 25 countries carried out executions in 2007. Most executions take place in a handful of countries like Iran, Iraq, China, Pakistan, Sudan, and the United States. AI also reports that actual executions dropped from 2,148 in 2005 to 1, 591 in 2006.


Jamaica and the Caribbean are caught between world opinion and national/regional opinion. Both political parties in Jamaica have preferred to talk tough and walk softly on this issue. In a country with a murder rate at among the highest in the world, where public support of the death penalty must also be among the highest in the world, and in a region that has the highest murder rate in the world, it cannot be easy to take a simple for or against position. There is even division within the political parties.

The Government of Barbados changed in January, but the positions of the parties have remained united in favour of the death penalty. The parties were able to subscribe to the CCJ's final jurisdiction. This has not been the same in Jamaica. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) resisted the full powers of the Caribbean Court of Justice on the basis that it was a hanging court. In 2005, P.J. Patterson tried to start a debate on whether the death penalty should be abolished or not in order to get a breakthrough on the CCJ. The JLP only accused A.J. Nicholson, then Minister of Justice, of 'blatant misrepresentation' for saying that the delay in resuming hanging was caused by the failure of the JLP to agree to proposed amendments to the constitution. Derrick Smith, the then party's spokesman on national security said the delay was due to the incompetence of the Government.

In February 2007 when murders had passed 150 for the month of January and elections were in the air, Mr Smith, now the minister of national security promised, for what it is worth, to make security the top priority of a JLP government saying that it required $6 billion to properly equip the police force, and that his government would resume hanging, charging the PNP administration with cowardice for not hanging anyone in its 18 years in office.

Up to December 18, 2007, the JLP Government was still in favour of the death penalty and voted against the UN moratorium on the death penalty. Leading up to the September elections, Mr Golding said that his administration would not only revive hanging, but also speed up the process so that Pratt and Morgan would not apply. Now that the JLP has won the elections, failed to curb crime, and is facing growing opinion in favour of hanging, the administration needs to do more than talk tough. We need the necessary amendments to the constitution to withdraw from the British Privy Council and join the CCJ as the final court of appeal and if Mr Golding wants to call a referendum to do so, then so be it. But even more importantly, we need to address the reasons for the strong views in favour of vigilante justice. We should work with communities for their self-defence and the protection of the life and property of those families that are being robbed and killed by thieves and murderers. While governments and human rights organisations are debating the death penalty we need to do something on the ground to help communities to defend themselves because if we don't, they have a right to their own methods.

Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, Mona, UWI. Email:

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