In Michael, we have a leader who understands the true conditions of our prisons and has from time to time talked about it, associated himself with it. More is expected of Michael’s government on the issue of improving prison conditions.
There has been enough talk on this issue. Prison conditions don’t require much disquisition. What is needed is action to change the inhuman conditions of our jails.
It is also pleasing to learn that this government is not interested in hanging people, in the death sentence. This is not the first time we have heard this from a government of our country.
Levy Mwanawasa denounced the death sentence. Levy refused to turn himself into a chief hangman by signing death execution orders for condemned prisoners as long as he remained in power: “…Life is sacred and I will not allow people to be slaughtered like chickens”.
Many people were delighted to hear these words from their president and thought Levy’s principled opposition to the death penalty would be followed through by his government and help our people to rid themselves of this evil and inhuman form of punishment.
There is need to abolish laws that allow and compel our courts of law to sentence people to death. The case for abolishing the death penalty becomes more and more compelling with each passing year. Everywhere, experience shows that executions brutalise those involved in the process.
As Levy had eloquently explained, nowhere has it been shown that the death penalty has any special power to reduce crime. And in country after country, it is used disproportionately against the poor. Yet too many politicians and other citizens still believe that they can solve urgent social problems by executing a few or even hundreds of their prisoners.
Too many of our people are still unaware that the death sentence offers our nation not further protection but further brutalisation. The death penalty is premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state. The state can exercise no greater power over a person than that of deliberately depriving him or her of life.
No matter what reasons we give for executing prisoners and the method of execution we use, the death penalty cannot be separated from the issue of human rights. As Levy once put it, there can never be a justification for torture or for cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The cruelty of the death penalty is evident.
Like torture, an execution constitutes an extreme physical and mental assault on a person already rendered helpless by government authorities.
Like killings which take place outside the law, the death penalty denies the value of human life. The death penalty cannot be reconciled with respect for human rights.
And if the death penalty can be justified for one offence, justification that accord with the prevailing views of society or its rulers will be found for it to be used for other offences.
Whatever purpose is cited, the idea that we can justify a punishment as cruel as death conflicts with the very concepts of human rights. The significance of human rights is precisely that some means may never be used to protect society because their use violates the very values which make society worth protecting.
When this essential distinction between appropriate and inappropriate means is set aside in the name of some greater good, all rights are vulnerable and all individuals are threatened.
The death penalty, as a violation of fundamental human rights, would be wrong even if it could be shown that it uniquely met a vital social need. What makes the use of the death penalty even more indefensible and the case for its abolition even more compelling is that it has never been shown to have any special power to meet any unique social need.
Countless men and women have been executed for the stated purpose of preventing crime, especially the crime of murder. Yet, as Levy demonstrated, study after study in diverse countries has failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty has any unique capacity to deter others from committing particular crimes.
Undeniably, the death penalty, by permanently incapacitating a prisoner, prevents that person from repeating the crime. But there is no way to be sure that the prisoner would indeed have repeated the crime if allowed to live, nor is there any need to violate a prisoner’s right to life for the purpose of incapacitation: dangerous offenders can be kept safely away from the public without execution.
Every society seeks protection from crime. Far from being a solution, the death penalty gives the erroneous impression that firm measures are being taken against crime. It diverts attention from the more complex measures which are really needed.
When the arguments of deterrence and incapacitation fall away, one is left with a more deep-seated justification for the death penalty: that of just retribution for the particular crime committed. According to this argument, certain people deserve to be killed as repayment for the evil done: there are crimes so offensive that killing the offender is the only just response.
It is an emotionally powerful argument. It is also one which, if valid, would invalidate the basis for human rights. If a person who commits a terrible act can deserve the cruelty of death, why not others, for similar reasons, deserve to be tortured or imprisoned without trial or simply shot on sight? Central to fundamental human rights is that they are inalienable.
They may not be taken away even if the person has committed the most atrocious of crimes. Human rights apply to the worst of us as well as to the best of us, which is why they protect all of us.
What the argument of retribution boils down to is often no more than a desire for vengeance masked as a principle of justice.
The desire for vengeance can be understood and acknowledged but the exercise for vengeance must be resisted. The history of the endeavour to establish the rule of law is a history of the progressive restriction of personal vengeance in public policy and legal codes.
If today’s penal system does not sanction burning of an arsonist home, the rape of a rapist or the torture of a torturer, it is not because they tolerate the crimes. Instead, it is because societies understand that they must be built on a different set of values from those they condemn.
An execution cannot be used to condemn killing; it is killing. Such an act by the state is the mirror image of the criminal’s willingness to use physical violence against a victim.
And this probably explains why Nelson Mandela concluded that “the death sentence is a reflection of the animal instinct still in human beings”. For these reasons, we urge Michael and his government to move further than Levy did and totally get rid of the death sentence from the laws of our country. Let’s rid our country of the death penalty.
And Guy’s visit to Mukobeko, the prison that keeps those on the death row, should be the first step in this direction./ EDITORIAL COMMENT POST ZAMBIA