How did the issue of reintroducing the death penalty returned to the public arena in Senegal?
Senegal has been a de facto abolitionist country for several decades and one in law since 2004. President Abdoulaye Wade took the initiative to introduce a text into the constitutional reform which definitively repealed the death penalty in Senegal. So, we thought that debates on the issue had been definitively closed and were behind us. However, the increase in international terrorism and the development of organised crime, as well as the proliferation of terrible crimes, has created fear amongst the population, leading parts of our society to fix on the issue of the death penalty again. One event in particular inflated on the debate. The Vice-President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council was recently savagely attacked and killed at her home by her driver. Since then, the number of colleagues leaning towards drafting a law to reintroduce the death penalty has grown. Unfortunately, a few of our colleagues are now demanding the return of the death penalty to discourage such terrible crimes and to use violence to respond to violence.
So the old argument that the death penalty is supposedly dissuasive is being put forward?
Yes, and also the argument that the death penalty should be used as an answer for these criminals – as a sort of vengeance or collective vendetta. As for dissuasion, our debates yesterday proved that there is no scientific proof to validate the theory that abolition of the death penalty leads to an increase in crime ipso facto. None. It’s an illusion. In the face of terrorism and these attacks, we must not respond by taking the life of these criminals, believing that this would cut their numbers. There are always new shoots and there is more important work to be done. Indeed, at the Dakar Forum on Peace and Security President Macky Sall evoked education as an important factor in reducing criminality. The death penalty is not the solution. We do not plan to go back on this provision in Senegal in the short, medium or long-term.
Had there already been a debate in Senegal when abolition was included in your argument?
Abolition was achieved through a referendum, of course, so there was a wide-ranging debate at the National Assembly and among the people…all levels of civil society were involved, including the Marabout sects. I remember that one of our eminent professors from Dakar University, an Islamic scholar, invited himself into this debate and considered that abolishing the death penalty was in itself a sin in a country which is 95% Muslim. That didn’t stop the Senegalese people from overwhelmingly voting for the constitutional amendments abolishing the death penalty.
Are the MPs calling for a reintroduction of the death penalty today also using religious arguments?
No. The debate began with an MP from a suburb of Dakar which has faced particular problems over organised crime. Crimes of all kinds have been committed there for a long time: theft and assaults, armed groups oppressing the people, etc. This MP therefore considered himself to be within his rights to say to his constituents “I am aware of your concerns and I am asking for the death penalty to be reintroduced.” There you go. It has come from isolated and sporadic action; from criminal phenomena which are not just an issue in Senegal. They are global…And some people think that the answer is to add more blood to the blood which has already been spilt.
Do you think that there really has been an increase in criminality or has the media been whipping up the debate?
There is indeed more crime but our population has increased from approximately 3 million at independence [in 1960 – ed.] to 15 million today! When the population grows, in a country where the birth rate remains high, it’s normal for there to be an increase in criminality in absolute terms. That’s one fact. Secondly, there are many more media outlets today. Online media has appeared and information is no longer controlled. And as is the case everywhere, human interest news items hold particular attention. As a result, every time there is an incident somewhere, it is broadcast nationally, the debate spreads everywhere and that suffocates the actual reality. This contributes to making people scared and creating a feeling that the State is failing in its sovereign duty to ensure the safety of people and property. The media highlights these items not to raise awareness among the people but to vulgarise highly reprehensible acts, something which pushes people to look for ways to ensure their own safety. However, there is a security problem linked to towns which are expanding to gigantic proportions. Providing security under these conditions remains an important calculation to be resolved by the authorities.
Do you think that the issue of the return of the death penalty will crop up recurrently in the future?
Yes. I think that, although the issue is not avoided, it is not dealt with seriously. In my opinion, a national debate should not be provoked because that would be to accept the idea of questioning fundamental rights. In spite of everything, if a question is asked an answer is required. And the answer includes everything from increased security spending to closer proximity of the police with the population, more connectivity between those who provide security and the people so that their safety is ensured.
Generally speaking, is respect for human rights frequently discussed in Senegalese society?
It should be recognised that Senegal is fairly considerably advanced in the sub-region and the African region in general. But I do not like self-glorification. We are in a time of globalisation and being top of a class of bad students is not something to be proud of. We must not look at who is behind us but rather apply the standards and work in consideration of international standards. We have signed the international agreements on all human rights and we have integrated them into our legal code, something which is worth a certain amount of celebration on the international stage. But we must, nonetheless, continue to reinforce these rights.