On today's World Day against the Death Penalty, Switzerland takes part in an International Joint Declaration in favor of death penalty abolition. Countries still seeking to achieve abolition are joining their voices to those of abolitionist countries. This declaration contains one key message: As the worldwide trend towards universal abolition continues to grow, there is an increasing awareness about the risks and failures of capital punishment.
The death penalty continues to make frequent headlines in national and international newspapers: botched executions, executed convicts posthumously presumed innocent, exonerations after years on death row, inhumane execution methods, public executions, unfair trials, and the list goes on. In the midst of such controversy - including blatant violations of human dignity - individuals, organizations and governments from every part of the world are uniting to promote the end of the death penalty.
For those who retain it, the death penalty allegedly deters crime, reflects public preferences, provides compensation to victims' families and is sometimes considered "just punishment" for unspeakable crimes. Yet, the use of death penalty is steadily declining. 40 years ago, only 14 countries had fully abolished capital punishment. That number now stands at 100 and is set to increase further. If we add those countries that haven't carried out executions for at least 10 years, there are now about 160 death penalty-free countries.
The main risk of capital punishment lies in the irreversibility of executions, made truly horrifying in the face of inevitable human error. Even in justice systems following the most stringent safeguards, there is no one hundred per cent safe process. As innocents continue to be wrongfully convicted in first or second instances, their fate depends on last appeals and retrial options, as well as on competent and honest professional defense. The death penalty's irreversibility makes for a potentially unbearable injustice, tacitly supported by the State. Media from around the world regularly inform about miscarriages of justice, including about cases of death penalty convicts being exonerated, some after having spent years on death row.
Another critical danger is abusive and repressive use of the death penalty by those in power. Several countries have lived through such tragic experiences, others still tolerate them today. The only secure remedy that can avoid reproducing such crimes is abolition.
Public opinion in many places remains ambivalent towards the death penalty. High or increasing criminality rates naturally push people towards options that seem to offer a safer environment. In this search, many instinctively and hastily opt for the ultimate sanction - without considering the fact that there is no evidence supporting the greater dissuasive effect of the death penalty when compared to long prison terms. Some of the highest homicide rates are found in countries that maintain capital punishment. This calls for a reexamination of the death penalty's true effects.
As different public opinion polls have shown, persons surveyed tend to respond differently when first given information about the risk of wrongful sentences, or when offered the choice of similarly tough sanctions, such as life imprisonment. As political leaders, we have the responsibility to fully inform our population on the objective risks and shortcomings of the death penalty. Global challenges, such as drug trafficking, terrorism or criminal gangs, are never going to be resolved by the death penalty. Let us focus on effective solutions that respond to our populations' concerns and best interests.
The story of how different States abolish teaches an interesting lesson: In some countries, when abolition was decided, there was no consensus yet; but soon afterwards, public opinion there reversed in favor of abolition. This should be an encouragement for strong political leadership, which has often proven to be crucial for the final step towards abolition.
The death penalty provides no commensurate compensation to victims or their families. Organizations of victims' families in several countries show no lack of moral fortitude by speaking out against the death penalty. Executions amount to "eye for eye" retaliations and are not compatible with modern justice systems that aim at more than just retribution. States should hold themselves to higher standards than criminals. Answering violence with violence is never going to foster social cohesion, not even to bring peace of mind to victims' families. Facing the past and finding the strength to forgive and empathize are the only ways to overcome painful loss and unspeakable injustice.
Today's Joint Declaration, signed by 12 Foreign Ministers from around the world, is an open and respectful invitation addressed to all countries that either have still to start their abolition process or have yet to complete it. Abolition requires well-informed national debates, sustained by objective facts and findings. Several non-governmental organizations, including groups of lawyers, attorneys and judges, already contribute to useful research and investigation. I invite and encourage calm and candid debates, whether in courtrooms, government offices or parliament chambers, in local cafés or family living rooms. Switzerland stand ready to support and shall continue to promote the end of capital punishment everywhere.