Shorn Of Hypocrisy, The Mind Is For Death Penalty

by Dainam Dakolo

At the United Nations, 15 November, some 87 countries including 27 European Union States were able to secure approval by the vital Third Committee of the General Assembly for a draft proposal seeking to “establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.” By a vote of 99 countries for and 52 against, the Committee, which has responsibility for social, humanitarian affairs and human rights, is obligated to endorse and submit the proposal to the UN General Assembly for consideration and final adoption. Non-binding as the final outcome, a resolution, might be, member nations would be required to gradually phase out capital punishment, while reducing the type of offences that could attract its imposition.

Expectedly the United States voted against the proposal, with its envoy, Robert Hagen, calling on proponents “to recognize that international law does not prohibit capital punishment.” Singapore’s envoy was even more caustic in its rejection of the proposal, describing its proponents as countries lacking respect for the values and world view of other nations.

Americans, whose Federal laws have retained the death penalty from the earliest times, would definitely be a hard nut to crack for all those countries and human rights bodies that believe they could steamroller their way to victory. With China, another veto-wielding power beside it, America is in a strong position to save the world from fancy-driven nations and groups intent on upturning crucial elements of the world’s justice system.

The stance of the United States, bolstered by the disinclination of its revered Congress to review statutes dealing with capital punishment, definitely cannot be contradicted by reference to any aspect of jurisprudence. Those who might wish to point to the seeming contradiction that a number of States in that country have long abolished death penalty while the central administration has retained it have to understand that the States in question were governed largely by considerations that had little to do with protecting “human dignity” as canvassed by opponents of death penalty. A few decades ago one of that country’s renowned jurists, Justice William Douglas, gave some insight into the thinking that informed abolition of death penalty by some States. Part of the report in The Guardian (Lagos), 24 March 2004, said: “The death penalty was proscribed in some states of the United States, according to Justice Douglas in Furman v. Georgia (1972) to prevent its disproportionate imposition on minorities – the poor, the black, the ignorant.”

Now, anyone familiar with American history, with the injustices, snares and brutalities that minority ethnic nationalities, particularly blacks, had to contend with from the early 17th century to the first half of the 20th century, would appreciate the validity of the explanation by Justice Douglas. In America of that period, it was commonplace for blacks to be arrested, prosecuted, convicted and executed – by institutions of the State or by lynch mobs – usually on trumped-up charges as part of campaigns by groups seeking to create an all-white country. In countless cases blacks were lynched or sexually assaulted at will by vengeful whites for no other reason than what they termed “general principles.” Even the Constitution of the United States which, as of September 1787, equated a male slave with “three-fifths of a man in determining representation in the House of Representatives,” and the Supreme Court which, on March 6 1857, in the Dred Scott case, ruled that blacks were not citizens of the United States, gave little or no protection to the black man. Those States whose elite saw and felt the light of God moved to shield blacks from such extremities of hate, hence the legislations abolishing death penalty.

That America as a nation upholds death penalty for culpable homicide largely explains its stance on a number of issues within its borders and on the international scene. In Iraq, after its forces had captured former President Saddam Hussein, the U.S. directed that he be tried in accordance with local laws for offences he had purportedly committed in his country. The Americans knew that if he were tried by the International Court at the Hague or UN-sponsored war crimes tribunals he would escape execution whatever the nature of his crimes. So, Iraqi law courts had to handle his trial, which ended predictably with a conviction and capital punishment. America was consistent all through, with President George Bush declaring that the execution was “an important milestone.” But hear the British as reported in a leading newspaper: British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Saddam had been “held to account,” but reiterated the British government’s opposition to the use of the death penalty…. She said that the British government welcomes the execution of Saddam for some crimes he committed against the Iraqi people, but advocates “an end to the death penalty worldwide.” Beckett’s remarks were followed by a statement from the spokeswoman to Downing Street, confirming that what she (the Foreign Secretary) had said was fully reflective of the position of the British Government. No one in Tony Blair’s administration could spot the doublespeak in the remarks by the Foreign Secretary. It was all so apparent that deep down in the minds of the then Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Britain, death penalty is in order, at least in some cases. Yet Britain’s laws have long dispensed with death penalty and that country is one of those vigorously pushing the aforesaid proposal at the U.N. Isn’t the hypocrisy clear enough for all to see?

The British officials and their counterparts in other European capitals were essentially no different in psychological makeup from the Kosovo masses who jubilated for days along the streets of Pristina, upon news of the 15 January 2004 assassination of the notorious Serbian paramilitary leader, Zelkjo Raznatovic, alias Arkan. Such wild jubilations had been recorded in black communities and among liberal whites in South Africa after the assassination in 1962 of then Prime Minister Heinrich Verwoed; in Pakistan after its strongman, General Zia Ul-haq had been blown up; in former Zaire, now Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after the death of Mobutu Sese Sekou, and even in Nigeria, in 1998 after the death of General Sani Abacha. That is the heart of man, the spirit force of his being, the power that lurks behind the personality that he projects, in expression. It demands that for injustice and crime divine retribution and the human penal system must apply and be seen to have applied in a manner commensurate with the offence, to serve as deterrent and preserve for humanity harmony and orderliness.

Concern for “human dignity,” as canvassed by the aforesaid nations, groups and individuals pushing for abolition of death penalty, ought to begin with the renunciation of war. Nothing in the experience of humankind in all history so totally divests man of his dignity and fundamental freedoms as war. Politicians in those nations as well as leaders of the human rights organisations that pushed the said draft proposal at the UN know the horrors of the disintegrative processes in the former Yugoslavia, the story of genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and after, the barbarism of Charles Taylor-sponsored ragtag forces in Sierra Leone and the degenerate elements in Uganda’s Lords Resistance Army. Presently, Iraq and Darfur stare us all in the face. Millions who have had sound education and or have been engaged in productive employment or business are either internally displaced or have been reduced to refugees in foreign lands. They have been cut off from their sources of livelihood by war and are disabled in the capacity to provide for the shelter, feeding and health needs of their children and other dependents. Thousands of women, most of them respectable, law-abiding members of society, and under-aged girls, are raped and sometimes strangled in war after war – sometimes in the presence of husbands or parents.

Now, what is greater indignity than that? So, why is anyone bothered about the dignity of a convicted murderer – a person duly investigated, arraigned, and proven to have willfully (and oftentimes, brutally) terminated the life of another human, and even given the opportunity of appeal – and not about how to institute processes that will hopefully check human inclination to war? It is a contradiction to accept war as a means of resolving disputes, internationally or within national borders, while rejecting death penalty outright. War takes lives in thousands and millions without differentiating between guilty and innocent. Anybody could be felled by bullets or mowed down by bombs, irrespective of innocence. Even children could be felled. Let Britain and the other countries of Europe that joined the U.S. in the reckless show of power in Iraq tell the world whether the thousands of Iraqis killed by their forces since 2003 were members of Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Guard or Iraqi Armed Forces. Hundreds of children and women are among innocent civilians killed either in the aerial bombardments of the early phases of the U.S.-led invasion of that country. All member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) whose forces have turned parts of Afghanistan into killing fields have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians, including children and women, as the campaign against terrorist bases in that country intensifies by the day.

Now, how can Britain and those same European powers whose activities in war cause deaths of innocent civilians turn around to condemn and reject death penalty – a punishment prescribed for clearly specified offences and imposed only after clearly defined judicial processes have been duly followed? Nations currently pushing for “a moratorium on executions” at the United Nations should take a second look at the awesome arsenals of weapons conventional and nuclear – they have amassed over the years in readiness for war. Do the stockpiles suggest in any way that the governments and people of those countries have regard for human life and dignity? Let’s ponder for a while about the kind of mindset that led the ruling classes and elite in those countries to embark on such horrific accumulation of weapons? What is underlined is a murderousness of heart, an inclination to villainy, destructiveness and sadism. That murderousness has manifested in all wars – civil or international. The weapons accumulated by nations of the world are for missions similar to America’s nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Nothing less. They are for destruction of innocent lives by imperialistic and godless leaders and politicians around the world. And let none of the nations calling for death penalty ever fancy itself as having a better moral standing than the U.S. that has never made a secret of its readiness to strike militarily at any other nation outside NATO, upon provocation, and continues to resist abolition of capital punishment.

There is very little to choose between them. Not even the human rights community in Europe that is fighting for abolition of death penalty can be taken seriously. Let them begin by compelling their governments to dismantle their stockpiles of weapons. Given that wars, like quarrels and brawls, are almost inevitable at one time or the other and that armaments would continue to swell around the world, the least we can do is admit to ourselves that circumstances could necessitate the taking of lives. It is a reality we cannot run away from. That standpoint provides us all a means of resolving the aforesaid contradiction by restricting our concern over death penalty to the nature of offences for which the penalty could be imposed. Death penalty for coup plotting (and oftentimes, for being merely “accessory before the fact”) is a hard sell. Divulgence of military or sensitive secrets to a foreign country or local insurgent groups need not attract death penalty. So are offences like drug peddling, sexual immoralities and the like. The world should seek a common position on these issues – exclude them from the category of capital offences. Europe would be advancing the cause of humanity if it is able to freeze its programmes for armament and persuade the U.S. to do same. A fraction of America’s annual Defence Budget of US$500 billion and above, if invested in critical areas of need like research into bush fires and boosting its fire-fighting capability, would make a lot of difference in the lives of its citizens. The wild fires that swept through parts of California showed clearly that America has a lot to do to guarantee security of life and property within its borders. Europe and America should re-direct resources intended for defence to research into effective means of combating global warming. On “Our World” programme of the Voice of America (VOA), 18 November, 2007, experts lamented the lack of equipment for measuring (and dealing with) the impact of water vapour on atmospheric temperature. Let the U.S. and Europe provide the required resources to minimise the scourge of global warming and protect the future of humanity.

Here in Nigeria, some who never tire to ape Europeans in countless ways, have also canvassed outright abolition of death penalty. Without exception they regurgitate lines affirming the right to life and dignity as propounded in some international conventions and insist that capital punishment has not served as deterrent. They also argue that the instinct for murder would be repressed if criminals know that the risk of conviction and execution is no longer present. In other words armed robbers and other vicious elements in our midst would not kill their victims if the prospect of their being executed were eliminated. Those who hold these views only show their very limited grasp of trends in our country, especially in the past 11 years. It is common knowledge, for instance, that the execution of an Assistant Commissioner of Police and a Police Sergeant on 16 January 1996, after conviction for ‘conspiracy, aiding and abetting armed robbery’ is about the last known case of death sentence carried out in this country.

What looked like official position on the subject emerged on 4 January, 2000 when the then Minister of Cooperation and Integration in Africa, Professor Jerry Gana, declared to State House correspondents that the Federal Government had granted pardon to all convicts who had been on the death row for 20 years and upwards, and also commuted the conviction of others who had been on death row for 10 years to life imprisonment. (The Guardian (Lagos), 5 January, 2000; Vanguard,(Lagos) 5 January, 2000).

That action by the last regime, widely publicised, sufficiently signaled the thinking in Government that capital punishment be discouraged and ultimately abolished. The criminals have not seen any public executions by firing squads (as used to be common in the 1970s and 1980s) or hangings in prison yards since then, yet they have been at their most vicious. We know that armed robbery, hired assassinations and related forms of violence have been at their worst in the past eight years. Armed robbers have been most daring these days, attacking police stations and other security formations, bullion vans, banks, and other public places in broad daylight. The viciousness of the criminals these days could be so chilling. There was, for instance, the case of a luxury bus whose occupants were ordered to file out and lie prostrate on the highway in the dark. They did, and were crushed within a few minutes by a truck at top speed. Do those robbers, if caught, deserve anything less than the pain they caused those innocent passengers?

Opponents of death penalty believe that life imprisonment would do for offences of a capital nature. They need to be reminded that even if that were acceptable, Nigeria is not the type of country where the justice system is insulated from undue interference by powerful people. A person on life imprisonment for murder could be released any day by a State governor or a president whose agents might have engaged or intend to use the convict for criminal activities. We saw how murderers and arsonists in Anambra and Oyo States have been protected by the powers-that-be between 2003 and 2007.

Death penalty, if restricted to culpable homicide, need not be a headache to the world. The UN General Assembly should at best preoccupy itself with specification of offences for which capital punishment could be imposed. That’s the aspect of the aforesaid draft proposal that could improve justice systems around the world.

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A.A.Nuhu December 4, 2007 - 3:00 pm

Nice article.

Tim December 4, 2007 - 3:55 am

Insightful and realistic!


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