While taking stock of all retentionist regions, the 5th World Congress Against the Death Penalty will take a closer look at areas where the death penalty issue is connected to a specific political context.

That is the case in the Middle East-North Africa region, Iran, Africa and in certain Asian countries such as India, Japan and Indonesia, where executions resumed recently.

The situation in the United States remains a major concern in the democratic world, considering the country’s status as a beacon of modernity.

The Caribbean and the variety of situations clustered in that region will receive special attention: the Caribbean will be the focus of the 2013 World Day Against the Death Penalty.

Those geographical debates are designed to offer abolitionists an opportunity to understand better local contexts so that they can tailor their strategies and actions accordingly.

In the following essay, David T. Johnson, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii and co-author of The Next Frontier: National Development, Political Change, and the Death Penalty in Asia, argues that despite huge variations, the Asian regional trend and context favour abolition.

There are huge variations in death penalty practice in the Asia region, from the People’s Republic of China, which continues to execute thousands of people each year, to India, which has executed only three persons in the past 16 years, to South Korea and Sri Lanka, which have not carried out any judicial executions for more than ten years, to Bhutan, Cambodia, East Timor, Hong Kong, Macao, Nepal, and the Philippines, which have abolished capital punishment altogether.

This much variation in a region of the world where 60 percent of the world’s population resides might seem to suggest that the death penalty in Asia will be around for a long time to come. But careful study of the region reveals reduced use of execution over time and increased ambivalence about its appropriateness.

For one thing, even in nations that retain capital punishment, its use tends to be rare and has little or no importance for crime control. In fact, the most common situation in Asian nations with capital punishment is very low use, a pattern that can be called “inertial retention.” Since there are no strong incentives to perform executions, many nations avoid them (see India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand). At the same time, these nations do not abolish capital punishment because there are few strong incentives to do so.

Asian trend is toward fewer executions over time

Moreover, the clear trend in Asia is toward fewer executions over time. In the mid-1990s, about half the nations of the region had executions in any given year, while in recent years the proportion has declined to about one-third. The most dramatic execution declines have occurred in the rapidly developing democracies of South Korea (which has not carried out any executions since 1997) and Taiwan (which did not execute for more than four years between 2006 and 2010). But there have been major death penalty declines in many other nations as well, including China and Singapore, two of the biggest per capita users in the world.

Despite this downward momentum, there are still more executions in Asia than in any other region of the world. Only three or four Asian nations execute with any frequency (China, North Korea, Vietnam, and, until recently, Singapore), but together these authoritarian states account for well over half of all the judicial executions that have occurred in the world since 2000.

Potential of external pressure increasing to inhibit capital punishment in Asia

Still, the long-term trends that undermined executions in the West are occurring in Asia too. And when development and plural democracy take root in Asia, the decline of execution as a criminal punishment usually comes sooner rather than later.

There is also good news about the potential of international norms and external pressure to inhibit capital punishment in Asia. For most modern states, there are no large benefits to executing criminals and therefore no large material costs to ending the practice. Capital punishment is not an issue like air or water pollution, in which compliance with international norms carries significant costs for the domestic economy. The pace toward ending the death penalty in Asia is modest more because the incentives to cease execution are weak than because the costs of abolition are high. The practical implication for foes of capital punishment is that increased efforts to focus attention on Asia will help make this form of state killing a thing of the past.

David T. Johnson

Photo : Demonstration against the death penalty in Indonesia by 350.org