The unnecessary cruelty of the death penalty

Sylvie Bermann says France's long journey to eventual abolition of the death penalty shows other nations that mete out executions, including China, that justice is best served in other ways

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 8:36am

Thousands of people are executed every year around the world. Since no justice system is infallible, some of them are inevitably innocent. On this World Day Against the Death Penalty, I would like to stress that the death penalty's irreversible nature makes it unacceptable to many countries. Whatever our language, culture, religious beliefs or the political system under which we live, the idea that a miscarriage of justice cannot be put right is intolerable.

With the death penalty, nothing can be put right, and it is always too late.

France enforced the death penalty for centuries. Attempts to abolish it after the French Revolution either failed (1791 and 1908) or were short-lived (1848). The death penalty remained in force throughout the 19th century and for most of the 20th. It was mostly used for punishing violent crimes resulting in death. The law stipulated that culprits "will have their head cut off" - the modus operandi being the guillotine - and executions were public until 1939. After this date, executions were carried out only behind prison walls, in front of a few witnesses, so as to conceal from public view a punishment increasingly regarded as inhumane.

France eventually abolished the death penalty in 1981. Driven by deeply entrenched moral and philosophical beliefs, president François Mitterrand and the then minister of justice, Robert Badinter, decided to abolish it. It was no easy decision: many thought the death penalty was legitimate, necessary and effective, and the majority of French people were in favour of it.

The culprit’s death is in no way a prerequisite of justice. Revenge is not justice

But the growing awareness that no justice system is infallible, and the consequent, intolerable notion that a miscarriage of justice can lead to the execution of an innocent person, eventually turned the tide of public opinion. Thirty years later, the broad majority of French people now support the death penalty's abolition, and this is part of the French national identity. Abolition is enshrined in the constitution; the reinstatement of the death penalty would be unlawful.

Our own experience, shared by many other countries around the world, proves that people's ways of thinking can evolve.

Abolition has been all the easier to accept since it has not led to any rise in crime. This is no isolated phenomenon. Studies conducted in France and other countries have always failed to conclude that the death penalty is a better deterrent than other punishments. So, in this sense, it is broadly ineffectual. Contrary to popular belief, it is not always supported by murder victims' families, either. Many of them stress that it will not bring their slain loved ones back to life. What really matters to the families and society as a whole is that justice should be done. But the culprit's death is in no way a prerequisite of justice. Revenge is not justice.

Today, in conjunction with its European Union partners - which have all abolished the death penalty and have made its abolition a condition for joining the union - France has made universal abolition one of the priorities of its diplomacy. On October 9 last year, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius launched a global campaign against the death penalty, and in December, 111 states from every region of the world voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a universal moratorium on executions. Today, only 21 countries still apply the death penalty.

Our goal is to raise awareness among governments and the public about the reasons that led us to abolish capital punishment in France. France is playing an active role on the issue globally, in every country where the penalty is still meted out, whatever its level of development or political, cultural and religious identity.

Our inspiration stems from writers, philosophers and jurists who have vividly depicted the cruel and inhumane nature of the death penalty and helped to change mindsets through their works. In France, these have included The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829), the novel by Victor Hugo - an author well known to the Chinese - Albert Camus' novel The Stranger (1942), and Robert Badinter's L'Exécution (1973) and L'Abolition (2000).

This humanistic struggle should be carried out with China, in the framework of the strategic partnership and the mutual respect uniting our two countries. Several reforms in the past few years have led to a much more cautious implementation of the death penalty in China: since January 2007, the Supreme People's Court has regained its power to re-examine death sentences, and the number of crimes punishable by death was reduced in 2011.

I have great faith in these legal changes and am convinced that, in the near future, the Chinese and French people will speak with one voice on this issue, as they do on an ever-increasing number of subjects.

Sylvie Bermann is the French ambassador to China