On the World Day Against the Death Penalty (October 10), Emeritus Professor of Criminology, Roger Hood, delivered a keynote address to a seminar on abolition of the death penalty held by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Islamabad.

Having identified the forces and ideas that have been at work to promote progressive restriction and abolition of the death penalty around the world, he described the progress towards universal abolition, and the barriers that remain: most notably, the belief that capital punishment has a uniquely strong deterrent effect, that it is demanded by public opinion, and that it is an issue of criminal justice, of national sovereignty, and not one of human rights – barriers that he tore down with persuasive argument and evidence.

Professor Hood demonstrated that over the past quarter of a century a ‘new dynamic’ has been at work. This has sought to move the debate about capital punishment beyond the view that each nation has the sovereign right to retain the death penalty as a repressive tool of its domestic criminal justice system on the grounds of its purported deterrent utility or the cultural preferences and expectations of its citizens. Instead, advocates have sought to persuade countries that retain the death penalty that it inevitably, and however administered, violates universally accepted human rights embodied in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as interpreted and developed by International Human Rights institutions, by domestic Supreme or Constitutional courts and embodied in constitutions.

He explained that the human rights approach to abolition rejects the most persistent of justifications for capital punishment: retribution and the need to denounce, expiate and eliminate through execution those whose crimes shock society by their brutality. It holds that all human beings have a right to be able to redeem themselves and that a State has no necessity and no right to take the life of a captive citizen. Furthermore, it holds that no system of capital punishment can be devised which does not inevitably produce error and punishment which is arbitrary, cruel and inhumane, principles that are embodied in Article 6(1) as the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life, and Article 7, not to be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment.

He then turned his focus on Pakistan, and in particular the recent decision by the new government to continue with the moratorium on capital punishment which has been in place since 2007, a decision that has yet to be confirmed following further discussions between the Prime Minister and the President. Given that Pakistan ratified the ICCRP in 2010 and a year later removed all its reservations to articles 6 and 7, Professor Hood made clear that the continued application by the courts of death sentences in Pakistan breaches the prohibition against cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and treatment to which Pakistan is now committed to uphold. Furthermore, he argued that by ratifying the covenant, and by upholding the moratorium permanently on executions because of its ‘international commitments’, Pakistan has committed itself to develop its policy in line with the overall objective set out in article 6(6), namely ‘not to delay or prevent the abolition of capital punishment’. At the conference General Secretary HRCP I A Rehman said that there were 8,000 prisoners in Pakistani jails convicted under capital offences (including, according to the Justice Project Pakistan, three juveniles). Professor Hood advised that the first step should be to commute the sentences of all those currently under sentence of death and then to move swiftly to abolish the death penalty in law. To maintain a moratorium on executions yet still sentence persons to death and detain them under sentence of death is, he submitted, not an acceptable policy, and contrary to the spirit of article 7. Furthermore, he warned of the possibility that executions might resume as they did when Gambia executed nine prisoners in August 2012 after 27 years had passed without a single execution. His key message was clear: a moratorium needs to be regarded as a quick step to abolition.

The presentation was well received by all delegates and was followed by supportive news reports, including a report in News International.