World Day Against the Death Penalty on Oct. 10, which is sponsored by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, is aimed at strengthening international support for the universal abolition of this form of punishment. It is worth noting that Taiwan is one of 22 nations still practicing capital punishment. This seriously damages the nation's human rights record, as well as its image in the international community.
Since coming to power in 2000, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has claimed on many occasions that it would abolish capital punishment in this country. Unfortunately, it has often used "public opposition" as an excuse for delaying its implementation.
Roger Hood, a UN consultant on the death penalty and human rights, pointed out that "public opinion is frequently cited as a major factor in the decision whether to abolish, retain or reinstate the death penalty. For example, government officials in Japan, countries that were under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Union, China [and] Thailand have all supported the practice of the death penalty and strongly opposed the efforts to abolish it."
"These countries sometimes even claim that people would lose confidence in the rule of law if the efforts to abolish the death penalty were not backed by public opinion," he said. "There are also governments that stress that a nation must respect the will of the public, and that enacting a law to abolish capital punishment disregards public opinion and is undemocratic."
If any attempt to end capital punishment is considered undemocratic, why is it that most countries that strongly oppose the abolition of capital punishment are not democratic countries? Democratic countries in the EU have all abolished the death penalty. Therefore, whoever attempts to use public opinion to oppose the abolition of capital punishment needs a deeper understanding of what exactly public opinion is.
Many academics well versed in public attitudes toward the death penalty recognize that opinion polls on the death penalty issue are problematic, especially those that use the simple question: "Would you favor the idea of abolishing the death penalty?"
First, public opinion poll questions can be far too simplistic. Often there is only one question on whether or not the respondent wants to abolish the death penalty. In fact, the public view of the issue is quite complex. The outcome is usually very different if another type of question on the death penalty is included in an opinion poll.
Second, the results of a public opinion poll usually reflect spur-of-the-moment responses from the respondents, who have mostly not been given full information related to the issue. That is, the public do not possess the relevant knowledge to answer the question.
Third, public opinion is changeable and is changing right now. If public opinion changes, then using public opinion to dictate a decision regarding the death penalty would be problematic.
Fourth, governments and the media can manipulate public opinion. If a government is strongly opposed to the abolition of the death penalty, it will use the results of a simplified opinion poll to strengthen that position, thus manipulating public opinion in its favor.
Fifth, a policy to abolish the death penalty affects public opinion. The majority of the public in many countries were still opposed to abolishing the death penalty even while their government was on the verge of taking capital punishment off the books. Nevertheless, public opinion changed after the decision was made and implemented.