The 6th World Congress against the Death Penalty was held 21-23 June 2016 in Oslo, Norway at the Opera House. I was privileged to participate in the congress. It was exciting meeting with, debating and sharing knowledge and experience with hundreds of abolitionists from different parts of the world. The two day event was packed full with two plenary sessions, six roundtables, six workshops and nine side events. I was able to participate in discussions on the following topics: Progress and setbacks in Asia lessons learnt; The political use of the death penalty in counter terrorism; Legal, social, and medical perspectives on protecting individuals with mental disorders from the death penalty; The importance of National Human Rights Institutions to the abolitionist cause; The Draft Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on Abolition of the Death Penalty in Africa; Facing the Challenges of alternatives to the Death Penalty.
It was encouraging to hear at the Congress that China is reforming by reducing crimes to which the death penalty applies. They amended their criminal laws removing 9 crimes punishable by death including: smuggling weapons, ammunition, nuclear materials or counterfeit currency; counterfeiting currency; raising funds by means of fraud; arranging for or forcing another person to engage in prostitution; obstructing a police officer or a person on duty from performing his duties; and fabricating rumors to mislead others during wartime. It is the second time China has reduced the number of crimes punishable by death over the past 5 years.
Some countries in Africa (including Nigeria) and the Middle East appear to be doing the opposite by extending crimes to which the death penalty applies in the guise of fighting violent terrorism, even when there is no proof that the death penalty can stop terrorism. I was not surprised to hear complaints of how Egypt misuses the fight against terrorism to silence the opposition, criminalize human rights related activities and more generally violate human rights. The best way to solve crime is to prevent it or at best apprehend the offender. When a criminal justice system is too weak to resolve crimes and apprehend offenders, the penalties, no matter how severe will have no deterrent effect.
The session that generated so much interest amongst African participants was the session on the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Abolition of the Death Penalty. The draft protocol was introduced during the first conference on the death penalty in Africa organized by the African Commission in collaboration with Benin Republic in Cotonou, sometime in July 2014; it was supported by many representatives of AU Member States, Members of Parliament, National Human Rights Institutions and Civil society Organizations. The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) officially adopted the draft protocol at its 56thordinary session in April 2015 and submitted it to the AU for adoption.
It requires member states to commit to protecting the right to life and abolishing the death penalty while respecting their sovereignty. This protocol is unique because it is indigenous to Africa. It shows the will of African governments to openly deal with the question of death penalty and prove the importance of this issue on the continent. The general trend in Africa is to abolish the death penalty. As of 1 January 2016, the majority of African Union’s Member States have legally abolished the death penalty (19) or apply a de facto moratorium on capital punishment (18); only a minority retains the death penalty (17). Our Federal Government as a matter of fact needs to change course by ratifying this protocol.
The session on mental illness and intellectual disability highlights gaps in most criminal justice systems, especially the distinction between Mental illness (what we call insanity) and intellectual disability. Nigerian law for instance recognizes insanity when proved as an exemption to criminal liability for capital offenses. However, it is unclear on other forms of mental health problems like intellectual disability (often referred to as mental retardation or learning disability) and personality disorders. Mental retardation is a condition in which a person’s mental capacity has not developed during childhood and adolescence leaving the person less able to adapt to independent life and decision making. Personality disorder is not a mental illness that can be treated with drugs or therapy but rather constitutes a behavioral condition in which the affected person can lack empathy and understanding of others and can disregard social and legal conventions.
In its 2014 moratorium resolution, the UN General Assembly, called on states not to impose the death penalty on individuals with mental or intellectual disabilities. The General Assembly’s resolution reinforced long standing principles prohibiting such executions under international law. Nevertheless, few countries have enacted sufficient protections for persons with mental illness or intellectual disability. Lawmakers, judges, lawyers also lack awareness of the varied symptoms of mental illness, and fail to understand the different between mental illness and other disorders.
I was excited to hear that our National Human Rights Commission has taken interest in the campaign for abolition of the death penalty in Nigeria. The question of abolition and related issues such as the right to fair trial and conditions of detention are entirely related to what they do. It is important to engage even further this often neglected player and rally new and often reluctant institutions to the abolitionist cause. Finally, there is urgent need to think very deeply about alternatives to the death penalty. When the death penalty is abolished, what next? The solution cannot simply be life sentence without parole; it should take cognizance of the victims of crime and give hope to condemned persons. My general assessment is that great progress has been made around the world but a lot more needs to be done. It is my hope that at the next congress a lot of the challenges identified would have been resolved and a lot more countries would have abolished the death penalty.