Schabas: National Progress vs. The Death Penalty

UVU hosted the 4th Annual Symposium on Restorative Justice, Punishment, and the Death Penalty on Thursday. The final speaker in the symposium, Prof. William A. Schabas, spoke on the impact of the death penalty and its abolition on the international community.

Schabas said that around the world abolishing the death penalty is seen as a sign of progress.

As the director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Schabas is concerned not only with human rights and the cessation of violence against human beings, but with the international effort to bring criminals of the most heinous crimes to justice.

He added that the United States’ support of the death penalty hinders this effort. Many countries are very hesitant to turn offenders over to a government that would likely put the offenders on death row. Compliance on an international level is more easily achieved when the death penalty is not supported, as most countries, including European and African countries, are hesitant to cooperate in such instances.

Schabas also said that the abolition of the death penalty is perceived, on an international level, as a sign of a modern, sophisticated government and people.

Since the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, many countries, including most of Europe, South Africa in 1993 and Russia in 1996, have abolished the death penalty. According to Schabas, Rwanda took this action last year. “For them, this was a way of saying, ‘We’re trying to be a modern state.” For South Africa, it was also a way of changing policy from the apartheid regime, which had largely abused the death penalty. Despite the high crime rates, which held some nations back for many years, the death penalty is beginning to be seen as a relic of the past, one that causes more harm than good.

According to Prof. Schabas, we have come quite close to abolishing the death penalty in America, with Fuhrman in the ’70s, when support for the death penalty was not particularly high, and executions just stopped for a while. More recently, a supreme court ruled 5-4 in support of the death penalty, with one of the judges later saying it was the worst mistake he had ever made.

It is the general feeling among death penalty abolitionists that our nation is being held back by its support of the death penalty, both in the progress of the domestic justice system and in international communication and justice. However, Schabas said the pattern in countries abolishing the death penalty, if seen on a graph, indicates that the end of the death penalty in the United States is all but inevitable. “I don’t know if China will beat you to it, or Iran, but it’s a pattern. Invite me back in twenty years, and we’ll see what’s happened.”

William A. Schabas also holds the chair on Human Rights Law at the National University of Ireland, holds several degrees and has written several books and over 170 articles in academic journals. He has traveled to many countries around the world to speak on these issues. This year’s symposium included several other speakers, including Sangmin Bae, author of When the State No Longer Kills: International Human Rights Norms and the Abolition of Capital Punishment; Early Teaching Award winner Daniel Medwed, who spoke on prosecutors and their roles — actual and possible — in the justice system; and our own Sandy McGunigall- Smith, whose research efforts include revealing the effects of imprisonment on women.

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