Mon | Oct 23, 2017

Fighting the culture of death

Published:Friday | October 10, 2014 | 12:00 AM

With chikungunya, so-called gay rights and the Chinese attempted land grab at Roaring River, the abolition of the death penalty has fallen off the national lobby agenda. That's why it is good that today is observed as the World Day against the Death Penalty to refocus our attention on this important issue.

Let me first declare interest. I am a founding member of Greater Caribbean for Life (GCL), a lobby group composed of activists and organisations from 12 Caribbean countries who first met last year in Trinidad. GCL opposes the death penalty in all its forms and for any reason, and our ultimate goal is the permanent abolition of the death penalty in every country in the Greater Caribbean, and the creation of a culture of respect for the human right to life.

There are 25 countries in the Greater Caribbean: 13 Caribbean island nations, the Central and South American states washed by the Caribbean Sea, and the non-independent United States, British, Dutch and French Caribbean territories. Of these, 10 countries are abolitionist in law: Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador (for ordinary crimes only), Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela; 2 countries are considered abolitionist in practice - Grenada and Suriname - as even though they still have the death penalty in their books, they have declined to execute anyone for many years. In May 2014, Edward Belfort, justice and police minister of Suriname, announced that Suriname plans to abolish the death penalty, which would make it the 11th country in the region to become abolitionist in law.

All the other 13 countries in the Greater Caribbean are retentionist, with the death penalty on their books and with their courts still sentencing persons to death: Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Guatemala, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad & Tobago.

Global moratorium

What is it about English-speaking countries of the Caribbean that makes us anomalous in the region and the world? In 2007, 2008 and 2010, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted non-binding resolutions calling for a global moratorium on executions, with a view to eventual abolition. In all, 98 countries across the world have abolished the death penalty de jure for all crimes, seven have abolished it for ordinary crimes (they retain it in special circumstances such as war crimes), and 35 have abolished it de facto (have not used it for at least ten years and/or have signed the UN moratorium); that's 140 countries globally.

Even though most Caribbean retentionist states have not carried out any executions for the past decade, they have consistently voted against the UN resolutions on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, and have gone as far as signing a Note Verbale dissociating themselves from the moratorium. Is there something in our oppressive history of slavery and colonialism that impels us to allow the state the option to kill?

In terms of punishment, we don't suggest to rape the rapist, or burn down the arsonist's house. Why then do we seek to execute murderers?

Maybe some people believe that the existence and use of the death penalty will deter persons thinking of committing capital crimes. The chief justice of Trinidad and Tobago, Ivor Archie, said at the opening of the 2010 law term: "I am yet to see any persuasive empirical evidence that executions significantly reduce murder or crime rates generally ... . Social scientists ... suggest that the certainty of conviction, and within a reasonably quick time, is a more potent factor."

Not a deterrent

The death penalty cannot be a deterrent where the police detect and catch so few criminals, and where there is a backlog of 500,000 cases in the courts. And even in countries which have a better detection and capture rate, and a smaller backlog (like the USA), the murder rate is still high.

We must not be so foolhardy - or so desperate - as to put our faith in strategies that do not work.

Our love for the death penalty may have to do with the influence of fundamentalist and Old Testament Christianity. So many Christians continue to quote "an eye for an eye ..." (Ex 21:24), despite the abolition by Jesus of that principle under the New Covenant: "You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye', but I say to you, 'Love one another.'" (Matt. 5:38)

We need to fight the culture of death in Jamaica by abolishing the death penalty.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.