In what Prof. William A. Schabas of the Irish Centre for Human Rights described as “very likely the largest commutation of death sentences in modern history”, the President of Kenya in early August announced that all death row inmates would not be executed and that their sentences would be commuted to life imprisonment. This move elicited a rare cacophony of praise from both local and international commentators, organizations and governments. In his statement, Kibaki explained that he was acting to relieve the over 4000 inmates’ “mental anguish, suffering, psychological trauma, and anxiety”. Of course, nothing was said about the suffering that this, as well as other moves to abolish the death penalty, is likely to cause in the society as large.
While capital punishment has existed in almost all civilizations, across the world it is increasingly falling out of favour. According to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Currently, more than half the world’s states have taken steps towards total or de facto abolition of the death penalty and apply life imprisonment for the most serious crimes. And less than half of the countries retaining the death penalty actually execute prisoners. In Africa, 11 countries, including Rwanda and South Africa have banned state sanctioned executions. And even those that haven’t are remarkably queasy about the whole affair. Tanzania has not executed anyone since 1994. Uganda, despite President Yoweri Museveni’s declaration that “we shall shoot anybody who kills a human being” has neither shot nor hanged anyone in a decade. In Kenya, while an average of 750 people are sentenced to death each year, none has been sent to the gallows since 1987.
Ever since it came to power, the Kibaki administration has sought to abolish the death penalty is spite of the overwhelming public support for it. In January 2003, two weeks into Kibaki’s first term, then Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister, Kiraitu Murungi, revealed plans to abolish capital punishment in the country by the middle of the year. A month later his boss ordered the freeing of 28 prisoners on death row and commuted the sentences of 195 others. Presiding over their release, then Vice President, Moody Awori, announced his intention to introduce a Bill in Parliament to abolish the death penalty, prompting the then Commissioner of Prisons, Abraham Kamakil, to declare his longing “for the day Parliament will remove the death penalty from our Constitution.”The sentence was still in the books when, in June 2005, Kiraitu again declared that the government was “committed to abolishing the death penalty”. It is a position which enjoys considerable cross-party support. The ODM’s William Ruto, has called the death penalty a "vengeful" sentence that served no helpful purpose and party secretary Prof. Anyang’ Nyongo has declared that "the death penalty is not a deterrent and should be abolished." Despite this seeming consensus, in August 2007 Parliament defeated a Motion, moved by Kasipul-Kabondo MP, Mr Paddy Ahenda, seeking to do exactly that.
In its Position Paper on the Abolition of the Death Penalty, the KNCHR lists its objections to capital punishment: the death penalty is the ultimate violation of human rights. It is a violation of the fundamental right to life, which the Government has pledged to protect under the Constitution and other international human rights instruments that it has ratified. Similarly, the death penalty amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, which contravenes provisions of section 74(1) of the Constitution, the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
To support its position, the Commission advances several arguments. However, most of them dissolve when applied to other forms of punishment. For example, it declares that “the hallmark of a civilised society is arguably the acknowledgement of human worth and dignity at the core of which is the principle of the sanctity of life, which should be most protected under all circumstances.” The suggestion here is that those who favor the death penalty have a less than total regard for value of human life. Nothing could be further from the truth. More than 130 years ago, the eminent philosopher John Stuart Mill spoke eloquently on the issue before the English Parliament: "Does fining a criminal show want of respect for property or imprisoning him, for personal freedom? Just as unreasonable is it to think that to take the life of a man who has taken that of another is to show want of regard for human life. We show, on the contrary, most emphatically our regard for it, by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself."
Arguing against “the retributive eye-for-an-eye delivery of justice”, the KNCHR avers that “The use of (the) death penalty only lowers the standards of government to the mentality of the murderer itself; it only demonstrates that the government is not different from the murderer. We do not punish rape with rape, or burn down the house of an arsonist. We should not, therefore, punish the murderer with death.” If this argument were to be taken to its logical conclusion, then all forms of sanction would be declared immoral as all involve the denial of some fundamental right (life, liberty and property) which some criminal has previously denied to his victims. Prison terms, fines and community service require that we curtail the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms. Surely, abolishing all forms of punishment would be unlikely to deliver a society safe from crime. Secondly, to state that we cannot demand an-eye-for-an-eye recompense is to put the criminal himself in the position of determining what can or cannot be done to him. Since we do not wish to be like thieves, then society cannot take for itself a thief's hard earned property through a system of fines. The very act of thieving would thus deprive society of resort to this kind of punishment and kidnapping would automatically outlaw jail sentences. The criminals would be the new legislators.
The KHCHR believes that the death penalty does not address the victim’s pain and the suffering endured by the victim’s family since “whoever was murdered has no way of knowing and appreciating the punishment meted upon the offender.” This is a curious position to take considering that in the aftermath of the 2008 post-election violence and in answer to call for a general amnesty, the very same Commission declared its firm belief that “accountability for those accused of committing serious human rights violations…is a fundamental aspect of victims' rights to justice.” So which is which? Does the KNCHR believe that the dead have no right to justice?
The KNCHR’s objections to the application of the death sentence are similarly flawed. Take, for example, the sophistic argument that “enforcement of the death penalty amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment of the condemned person... In a de facto abolitionist state like Kenya, a person always lives in anxiety with the reality of death hanging over his or her head from the moment of sentencing.” What the Commission is really saying is that it is the failure to carry out death sentences that results in the prisoners’ (to quote Kibaki) “mental anguish, suffering, psychological trauma, and anxiety.”
Dealing with a similar situation, the Uganda Supreme Court in January ordered that all death sentences be carried out within three years. However instead of recommending that we abandon the de facto moratorium on executions, the KNCHR prefers that death sentences are commuted to life imprisonment. Are they seriously asking us to believe that this a morally superior alternative? Amnesty International, in a report titled Prisons: Deaths due to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions, declared that “prison conditions in Kenya are worse than in other African countries.” And this is how Wikipedia describes the situation in Kamiti Maximum Prison:
There is still no reliable water supply, with over 200 prisoners hauling buckets of water around daily. The inmates working in the ‘industry’ section are paid only 10 cents (kenya shilling) per day, as per the outdated 1940s legislation which rules the organisation. Within the prison, condemned "G" block is famed for its particularly brutal lifestyle, characterised by predatory sodomy and mobile phone confidence tricksters. The prison was built for 1400 prisoners, and it now houses over 3600 in conditions of unbelievable squalor… The authorities have banned any supplemental food…and malnutrition and ulcers have become far more prevalent.
Imprisoning someone for life under such conditions is surely “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.” In fact, the Tanzanian Court of Appeal, when considering the constitutionality of capital punishment in the case Republic v Mbushuu, quoted Paul Sieghart’s 1983 article in The International Law of Human Rights: “As human rights can only attach to living beings, one might expect the right to life itself to be in some sense primary, since none of the other rights would have any value or utility without it. But the international instruments do not infact accord it any formal primacy. International human rights law assigns a higher value to the quality of living as a process than to the existence of life as a state….the law tends to regard acute or prolonged suffering (at all events in cases where it is inflicted by others, and so it is potentially avoidable) as a greater evil than death, which is ultimately unavoidable for everyone.” From the human rights perspective, therefore, life imprisonment under the conditions prevailing in our prisons is a worse, not better, alternative to capital punishment.
The KNCHR paper also raises objections around the fallibility of our criminal justice systems and the irreversibility of death. The fear here is that we are bound to execute a few innocents. Again these objections dissolve when applied to other forms of punishment. If we insisted on an absolute measure of guilt (as opposed to the "beyond reasonable doubt" standard), then we would have no criminal justice system. And all punishments are inherently irreversible anyway. You cannot give back the years and opportunities that are denied someone who is wrongfully jailed or fined.
Concerning the deterrent value of capital punishment, the paper states: “There has been no proven correlation between the death penalty and deterrence of crimes and countries that still maintain the death penalty in their statutes have not seen a downturn in crime. A survey conducted by the UN in 1998 and later updated in 2002 found no correlation between the
death penalty and homicide rates. According to the study, the hypothesis that capital punishment deters crime to a greater extent than does the application of the supposedly lesser punishment of life imprisonment is flawed. In Kenya, for instance, the fact that death sentences are handed down has not deterred commission of crimes for which such sentences are implemented. The key to deterrence is not to apply the death penalty but to increase the likelihood of detection of crime, arrest and conviction.”
However, even here the KNCHR fails to see the wood for the trees. The fact is one would not expect studies to show a deterrent effect if executions are not carried out. The results of study conducted by Hashem Dezhbakhsh and Paul H. Rubin of Emory University and Joanna M. Shepherd of Clemson University suggested that capital punishment when actually employed has a strong deterrent effect; each execution prevents, on average, 18 murders. Another study by H. Naci Mocan of the University of Colorado at Denver and R. Kaj Gittings of Cornell University looked at all death sentences handed out in the United States between 1977 and 1997 and matched that with state-level criminal activity in the relevant time frame. Their results show that each additional execution decreases homicides by about five. More worryingly, each additional commutation increases homicides by the same amount, while an additional removal from death row generates one additional murder.
While the Kenya situation obviously differs from that in the US, we all have to be concerned about the possibility that by commuting the more 4000 death sentences to life imprisonment, President Kibaki may well have signed the death warrants of up to 20,000 innocents. As Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule state in their paper Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs: “If the current evidence is even roughly correct, then a refusal to impose capital punishment will effectively condemn numerous innocent people to death. States that choose life imprisonment, when they might choose capital punishment, are ensuring the deaths of a large number of innocent people.” Surely, the first obligation of every government is the protection of its citizens. As John McAdams of Marquette University’s Department of Political Science puts it, "If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call."