Death Penalty Series (Part 3): Can Human Rights be used as Justification?

Death Penalty Series (Part 3): Can Human Rights be used as Justification?

Punishment is a concept that is installed and practised amongst human beings from birth. From a young age, children are taught that doing bad things is wrong. As a child you also learn that bad behaviour results in punishment. The concept of punishment is not a concept that appears suddenly in life; it is something which we learn and develop to understand as we grow older.

The death penalty is a form of punishment for committing a serious crime and, therefore, some may say that the death penalty is part of human order. Otherwise if everyone is allowed to get away with serious crimes, this may result in chaos.

Discussions surrounding the death penalty are normally based around the stigma that the death penalty is, or should be, against the law universally. There is currently no single document declaring that the death penalty is against the law but there are individual regional treaties that prohibit the death penalty.

Over the past few years a global trend of abolishing the death penalty has emerged. To date, the death penalty is still a legal practice in some parts of the world.

The three main international legal arguments against the death penalty are:
• the right to life
• the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment
• human dignity

Although the majority of the world is against the death penalty, there are arguments in international law which suggest that the death penalty is justifiable. The three main arguments against the death penalty as stated above may technically also be used to justify the death penalty.

If a person commits a serious and unforgivable crime, then in those circumstances, the person is not owed these rights. The seriousness of the crime can outweigh a person’s right to life. The death penalty is usually carried out as a punishment for murder. Therefore if a person deprives someone else of the right to life, then they too can be deprived of the right to their life. Committing such a serious crime would amount to enough justification for torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.

It can be said that where someone commits murder, they are depriving the victim of their entire rights as stated in international law. While the criminal is alive, they are enjoying some of these rights, for example the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It can be argued that this is not fair even though it is by default, not entirely by choice. For example, whilst in prison they will be enjoying the right to ‘food’ (Article 25); the right to ‘education’ (Article 26) if they have access to books; the right to ‘conscience’ (Article 1) because they will still be able to exercise their mind.

Furthermore, when a serious crime is committed, there is a victim or someone affected on the other end. It can be argued that they too deserve justice for the serious actions that have been committed by the criminal. The preamble of the UDHR states that the declaration is founded upon the principle of justice amongst other things. This infers that victims have the human right to justice. If the criminal is allowed to live after committing a serious crime which has dire consequences, this may not be enough justification for the victims.

In addition, imposing the death penalty may deter future criminals from committing such serious acts. It has the potential to strengthen discipline in the international criminal justice system, while not oppressing human beings at the same time.

Death is part of human nature and it is inevitable. Life itself is a privilege, therefore if a person chooses to take that privilege away from someone, they are abusing their right to life and it can be said this is enough to justify death. After all, everyone is going to die anyway, the only difference is that this privilege to life will be taken away prematurely.

Human rights do not just encompass individual people, they also encompass nations as a whole. Some governments and nations still believe in the death penalty. If they wish to legalise the death penalty then it can be said that they have the right to do so as an independent nation. The UDHR states that: ‘The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government’ (Article 21). Therefore if the nation as a whole believes in the death penalty, the rest of the world has no right to intervene and must respect their sovereignty.

Overall, there are glimpses of the law which suggest that the death penalty is justifiable. The only setback lies in the role of evidence. In cases where the death penalty is accepted as a form of punishment, the evidence presented would have to be beyond accurate. There have been instances in the past where a person has been found innocent many years after execution.

Furthermore the crimes for which the death penalty can be a sentence must be of a very serious nature. It can be suggested that the death penalty should only be used in cases of murder. It is the only crime where one persons right to life is taken away, therefore it can be said to be fair to take another persons away. After all, everyone knows murder is more than wrong, it is purely evil. The human conscience is powerful enough to comprehend that committing such an act can only amount to serious consequences.

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