Pope Francis has a history of causing heads to spin with his policies and ideas on how to bring the Catholic Church into the 21st century and is no stranger to the tensions and conflicts brought about by changes to millenia of church teachings. On August 2nd, the Pontiff has once again stirred the pot of simmering hard-line conservative philosophy with the announcement that the death penalty was inadmissible in all cases.
Vatican News reported that Pope Francis has approved a new revision of paragraph number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, according to which “a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state,” and has concluded that “the death penalty is inadmissible”.
The new text of CCC 2267 now reads:
Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide”.
Capital Punishment in the 21st Century
Fortunately, most of the 21st century world has already done away with the death penalty. The entirety of Europe with the exception of Belarus has abolished it. Latvia was the last EU member nation to abolish the death penalty in 2012, but the last execution took place in January of 1996. Russia has a moratorium on the death penalty, and has not executed anyone in peacetime since 1996, and in wartime since 1999.
Capital punishment has been abolished in 105 countries which includes all EU member nations, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Mongolia, Argentina, South Africa, and many others.
The death penalty is still applied in the United States, Japan, North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, a large swath of Africa and more for a total of 54 countries.
Additionally, there are 7 countries including Brazil who have capital punishment in law, but do not actually impose it, keeping it reserved for the most serious crimes, but have not actually executed anyone in over a decade.
Capital Punishment is grossly misapplied
In Saudi Arabia and Iran capital punishment is used for offenses such as murder, adultery, drug trafficking, apostasy, witchcraft, sodomy, political dissidence and many more.
In Saudi Arabia, which also holds a place in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the main method of execution is beheading by sword, while it Iran it is usually hanging. Stoning is not uncommon in both nations.
Iran also controversially applies the death penalty to minors. According to Amnesty International, as of May 2009, there were at least 137 known juvenile offenders awaiting execution in Iran, but the total number could be much higher as many death penalty cases in Iran are believed to go unreported.
The United States, which has recently left the UNHRC, also applies capital punishment in controversial cases. Proponents of the Death Penalty in the United States continue to advocate for it in spite of overwhelming evidence of the racial and socioeconomic bias in the US judicial system as a whole, and in capital cases in particular.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has reported for years that the color of a defendant and victim’s skin plays a crucial and unacceptable role in deciding who receives the death penalty in America. People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 percent of total executions since 1976 and 55 percent of those currently awaiting execution.
Executions persist in the U.S.
The recent years pharmaceutical companies have stopped providing the drugs required to carry out lethal injections in the United States. Pfizer was the last company to cut off the supply. In May of 2016 it announced that it had imposed sweeping controls on the distribution of its products to ensure that none are used in lethal injections. With that move, the last remaining open-market source of drugs used in executions was cut off.
Rather than place a moratorium on the death penalty like the rest of the developed world, some U.S. states have tried to import drugs from questionable sources abroad which were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, only to see them seized by federal agents. Some have covertly bought supplies from loosely regulated compounding pharmacies while others, including Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio, have delayed executions for months or longer because of drug shortages or legal issues tied to injection procedures.
The situation in the U.S. has become so bad that several recent executions have been botched. According to the U.S. non-profit organization Death Penalty Information Center, which serves the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment, there have been 9 botched executions in the U.S. since 2010, and a total of 277 executions carried out in the period between 2010, and 2017.
Gallup and Pew Research reporting that only 55% of Americans support the death penalty, down from a historic high of 80% in 1994. But there is a very sharp divide along political lines with 72% of Republicans say they favor the death penalty, as compared to 58% of Independents and 39% of Democrats. Noteworthy is that death-penalty support among Republicans fell by ten percentage points, from 82% just before the presidential election in October 2016.
Death Penalty Worldwide
Information on executions in other death penalty nations is unfortunately notoriously unreliable. Amnesty International issued a report with the best available data on the subject in April 2018 and found that most executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan, in that order.
The report says that China remained the world’s top executioner but notes that the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown because the information is classified as a state secret. The global figure of at least 993 excludes the thousands of executions believed to have been carried out in China.
In 2017 Iran is believed to have executed at least 507 people, while Saudi Arabia executed 146 people. At least 264 executions were carried out for drug-related offences (27% of all recorded executions in 2017). Amnesty International confirmed that at least 619 death sentences were imposed in the region in 2017, a reduction on the 764 death sentences recorded in 2016. Egypt imposed at least 402 death sentences, the most in the region.
Death Penalty in the U.K.
The death penalty has been abolished in the United Kingdom since 1998, but no executions took place since 1964. But the U.K. has come under fire for reversing its policy of not extraditing prisoners to other countries without assurances that they will not face the death penalty.
The Extradition Act 2003 allows the U.K. to extradite individuals to certain countries. However extraditing someone to another country is prohibited if that person could face the death penalty. The person cannot be extradited unless the home secretary gets adequate written assurance that capital punishment will not be imposed.
The case of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who were captured in January, are alleged to have been members of a four-man cell of ISIS executioners in Syria and Iraq and are allegedly responsible for killing western captives. The two men, who are understood to have been stripped of their British citizenship, which raised the question of where they should face justice.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Sajid Javid said the U.K. government would not be seeking those assurances over the use of the death penalty, paving the way for both men to be extradited to the U.S. where they will face the death penalty if convicted.
This lead to the government being criticized by Human Rights groups and voters for abandoning the moral and ethical principles it is meant to uphold in all cases without exception.