When Pope Francis weighs in on the abolition of death penalty

Pope Francis has changed the teachings of the Catholic faith to officially oppose the death penalty in all circumstances.

Recently, Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church worldwide, declared death penalty as “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”.

It never came as a surprise because, in the past, Pope Francis had spoken out against death penalty, something ordinarily recognised in the Catechism of the Church.

It is a codified doctrine which sums up teachings, had previously stated that the death penalty could be used in some cases.

Pope Francis has changed the teachings of the Catholic faith to officially oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. The pontiff’s reasoning is very much likened to contemporary human rights law which absolutely abolished death penalty.

The common element of the Pope’s position as well as human rights law for abolition of the death penalty is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of a person.

However, since time immemorial, the death penalty has been acceptable in very many national legal systems. But, as the trend for protection and respect for human rights increased the momentum, states were significantly inspired to re-visit their domestic laws to outlaw the death penalty.

The Catholic Church, one of the world’s most influential denominations, will now work with determination for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide. The Church’s paradigm shift is a perfectly reasonable one.

Any human rights advocate would hugely welcome the Church’s current stance.

However, the death penalty remains in many countries around the world. For example, in the United States, where 22 per cent of the population are Catholic, execution is still legal in 36 of the 50 states.

Five different methods of execution are prescribed: Lethal Injection, Electrocution, Lethal Gas, Firing Squad, and Hanging. All jurisdictions, however, provide for execution by lethal injection.

The only place in Europe where it is still legal is Belarus, which has a sizeable Catholic minority of about 7 per cent of the population. Like in other regions around the world, some of African countries still apply the death penalty, namely Uganda, Burkina Faso, Madagascar and Benin to name but a few.

Rwanda, like a good number of African countries, outlawed the death penalty several years ago from the Penal Code. And, in recent years, Rwanda joined other African countries to rally against the death penalty.

While existing treaty and customary international law are not yet prohibiting the death penalty under universally-binding international law, its abolition is strongly encouraged and it may only be imposed within very strict limitations.

The increasing international trend amongst states to abolish the death penalty and identifies the likelihood that an international customary standard is developing.

To date, the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty (Protocol), is the only international treaty of worldwide scope to prohibit executions and to provide for total abolition of the death penalty.

This instrument requires the States that ratify it to renounce the use of the death penalty definitively. The Protocol is open for signature and ratification by any State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

It was adopted by the UN General Assembly with resolution 44/128 of 15 December 1989 and it entered into force on 11 July 1991 after its tenth ratification.

The Preamble of the Protocol underscores the significance of abolition of the death penalty as a measure enhancing human rights and assumes the commitment of States parties to this end. Article 1 provides for a ban on executions and for the abolition of the death penalty within the jurisdiction of States parties.

Article 2 allows States to reserve the right to apply the death penalty during wartime for serious military crimes committed during wartime. Article 6 further specifies the non-derogable nature of the ban on executions, even in times of public emergency.

Articles 3, 4 and 5 concern the reporting obligations of States parties and the complaints procedure and, finally, Articles 7 to 11 cover the procedural issues.

Given the clear prohibition of executions contained in the Protocol, the State would be obliged to commute the sentences. The Second Optional Protocol obliges a country in all circumstances to ensure it exposes no one to the real risk of execution.

Once the majority on countries worldwide will have ratified, the Protocol will serve as the instrument that outlaws the death penalty in international law. However, there is currently no systematic and comprehensive monitoring and campaigning programme aimed specifically at achieving the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol. The world coalition can fill this gap.

Though much of history of the Christian Churches accepted that capital punishment was a necessary part of the mechanisms of society, the current paradigm shift of Catholic Church will act as a greater contribution to the worldwide view.

Using biblical account, based on the tenets of faith, to argue against the death penalty would act as an important tool in crusading against this form of punishment.

The moral teaching of the Old Testament prohibiting to kill as well as the New Testament prohibition of any kind of revenge will suffice a cumulative argument against capital punishment.

The writer is a law expert.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.