The third millennium and the irrationality of the death penalty

Capital punishment, the poisoned fruit of an ancient world, should not find a place in any state system in the third millennium. Instead, in this case, it seems almost impossible to state that "historia magistra vitæ".


UN/MINUSTAH/Logan Abassi

«It is absurd that the laws, which are the expression of the public will, which detest and punish murder homicide, commit one murder themselves, and in order to remove the dissuade citizens from the murder assassination, order commit a public murder assassination».


This brief thought, even though it was expressed in a somewhat dated period – in fact, the essay in which it is exposed, “Dei delitti e delle pene**” written by Cesare Beccaria, was published in 1764 – is surprising and disarming. The main reason – against the death penalty – adduced by this famous jurist and summarized in the conviction that the execution is "the war of a nation against the citizen", seemed already widely shared. The death penalty, according to Beccaria, is neither a deterrent nor necessary in peacetime; the end of the sentence proposes the reeducation of the condemned to respect for all values – today, we would say values of constitutional rank – harmed by the commission of a crime. Finally yet importantly and from the perspective of the “contractualism”, if the State sanctioned a crime with the murder of the culprit, it would commit a crime in turn, causing the dissolution of the social contract.



UN rights experts applaud steps by China and India to reduce, abolish death penalty


On 16 December, the plenary session of the United Nations General Assembly adopted, for the eighth time and by 123 votes in favour, a resolution about the moratorium on executions, with the main objective of achieving its total abolition – hopefully in the near future. The difference between abolition and moratorium is substantial: the first one fully repeals the institution of the death penalty, while the second one only suspends its application – and therefore, maintained in its own legal system. Thus, at first glance, it seemed preferable to use the lightest route, namely the moratorium, so as to set a greater number of States around the proposal. Before exploring the results of this important resolution, it is necessary to investigate its genesis and promoters.


India votes against UN General Assembly draft resolution on use of death penalty


Since 1994, by virtue of the commitment of the association “Nessuno tocchi Caino” (No one touches Cain), Amnesty International, the Transnational Radical Party and the “Comunità di Sant’Egidio” (Community of Sant’Egidio), the first Berlusconi government proposed to the UN General Assembly a discussion about the universal moratorium on executions. Unfortunately, the resolution was not adopted because of just eight votes.



In the following years, the situation seemed to change positively: only five years later, the European Union decided to support the Italian position, while Amnesty International included the United States in the list of states that violate human rights. The response of the world’s largest democracy was incredible, according to which China has violated human rights to a greater extent: even if that was true, it would not wash the blood shed by the Americans. In addition, Pope John Paul II joined the chorus opposed to the execution, during the Jubilee of 2000, while the Comunità di Sant'Egidio presented a petition signed by more than three million people to the General Secretary of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. Seven years later, the times proved more propitious and on the proposal of the Prodi II Government, with the support of the European Parliament, the General Assembly approved the resolution for the universal moratorium on the death penalty. It was the first time, with 104 votes in favour, 54 against and 29 abstentions: since then other resolutions have been adopted, until the new one of few days ago, which represents an important step towards achieving the final objective.


The Eighth Resolution, tabled by Switzerland and Mexico, includes among the 123 States in favour some nations that have expressed themselves positively for the first time, such as Lebanon, Jordan, South Korea and Djibouti. Guinea, the Republic of Congo, Nauru and the Philippines have changed their dissenting vote and, finally, Yemen and Zimbabwe abstained, having voted against in 2018. A small number of States voted against (38), while fewer ones abstained (24). However, among the votes for or abstentions in 2018 elections, some have decided to vote against, such as Pakistan, Uganda, Antigua and Barbuda, Tonga, Dominica and Libya. In addition, Amnesty International has pointed out that executions have decreased in the last ten years and that, in 2019, only twenty States performed at least one. By contrast, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan and Saudi Arabia have used the death penalty more than in previous years.


Ultimately, I wholeheartedly believe that it is possible to adopt the words of Cesare Beccaria, “if I prove not to be the death penalty neither useful nor necessary, I will have won the cause of humanity.”


Articolo a cura di: Elenio Bolognese



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