Global Inequalities Concerning Capital Punishment

Global Inequalities Concerning Capital Punishment

“…anyone who has committed a crime in the UK will not be subject to punishment by death.”

In January 2013, Lindsay Sandiford, a British grandmother from Redcar in North Yorkshire, was sentenced to death by a court in Indonesia for attempting to smuggle drugs onto the island of Bali. The UK Government refused to send legal assistance in order for Lindsay to finance a second appeal, the first one having been financed through the will of others.

The case poses many questions about the rights of UK citizens who are subject to harsher and, from a UK legal standpoint, illegal punishments. It also raises greater issues surrounding capital punishment and its place within international law as well as its interpretation by other countries.

This year marks half a century since the UK Government passed the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, which abolished the use of the death penalty as a form of punishment for the most serious crimes committed. It was replaced with the sentence of life imprisonment. The UK has also signed a number of international treaties opposing the death penalty such as the European Convention on Human Rights.

This signifies that anyone who has committed a crime in the UK will not be subject to punishment by death. Given this legislation has lasted almost 50 years, it would be reasonable to say that the British government and the majority of the British people oppose capital punishment. However, under Indonesian law, the death penalty remains in force and is the maximum punishment for drug-related offences.

In law or in practice, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty and for those who have not, there are various international treaties that try to restrict the circumstances where the death penalty may be imposed. As of yet, there is no universally binding international treaty or set of laws that prohibit the death penalty.

The most prominent and globally extensive is the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 6 of the ICCPR stipulates that everyone has an “inherent right to life”, which does not necessarily abolish the death penalty, but restricts it to the most serious of crimes as well as ensuring there is a fair trial.

Understandably, problems arise when trying to formulate international treaties, concerning the number of divergent interpretations of “the most serious crimes”. For Islamic states such as Iran and Iraq, this may be interpreted as adultery or apostasy, for others economic or political crimes may be considered the most serious. In countries such as Singapore and Indonesia, drug-offences are considered the most serious, as seen in the case of Lindsay Sandiford.

Considering the brutality of Lindsay’s execution (by firing squad), it is necessary to look back at the creation of treaties such as the ICCPR and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

“…it is unlikely that the UK can enact any legal imposition in order to try and directly revoke Lindsay’s sentencing…”

Adopted in 1966 and 1948 respectively, they were instruments by which to bandage the wounds left by the two World Wars as well as to sow the seeds for an ever-closer international community. However, the case of Lindsay Sandiford signifies that the reconciliation of laws on an international scale also requires the unification of principles, beliefs, and morals inherent to each country – a near impossible task.

In respect of this, it is unlikely that the UK can enact any legal imposition in order to try and directly revoke Lindsay’s sentencing, but what of their refusal to give financial legal assistance to allow her appeal through the Indonesian system? As a country that fundamentally opposes capital punishment and its obstruction to ensuring every individual’s right to life, is it not proportional to provide the financial assistance required in order to appeal against the sentence?

The High Court of England and Wales unanimously refused to send legal aid to Lindsay on the basis of policies that disallow legal aid being sent to Britons abroad facing legal issues. This blanket ban is therefore rigid to the potentially unique circumstances of a case such as Lindsay’s. For a Government that fundamentally opposes capital punishment and aims to ensure everyone’s right to life, it is unclear why this policy reasoning should cover that of Britons abroad facing the death penalty.

“The case of Lindsay Sandiford highlights the inconsistency of justice across the globe…”

Considering the mitigating circumstances of Lindsay’s case, such as her involvement as a drug mule rather than a drug dealer, coupled with evidence that she has previously dealt with mental health issues and her motive being to protect her family from threats suggests that the punishment is exceptionally harsh. Therefore, her chances when taken to appeal indicate another reasonable attempt to seek justice.

A number of judicial reviews submitted against the UK Government have also been ineffective, with the High Court citing the “little chance of success” as their reasoning for not providing legal aid. Lord Dyson, in the Court of Appeal regarding the case of Lindsay’s request for legal aid, described how capital punishment is both “immoral” and “unacceptable”, but it cannot undermine the fundamental policy of not providing legal assistance to Britons abroad.

The case of Lindsay Sandiford highlights the inconsistency of justice across the globe and the risk that UK citizens face when going abroad and committing a crime and thus being subject to the potentially stricter and more brutal forms of punishment available in other jurisdictions. Her case appears shocking to a country where capital punishment has, for almost half a century, been prohibited. Nevertheless, it emphasises the inequalities between different countries when assessing how they value an individual’s right to life.

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