Whenever debating the pros and cons of capital punishment, the situation is always the same: Nearly all students favor the use of capital punishment, arguing that its abolition would result in social chaos. Furthermore, it would not meet the fair and just demand of the bereaved for revenge on the basis of an eye for an eye. Scrutiny of their arguments reveals that they are hardly based on any sound information, and instead blindly reproduce what public opinion and the government says.
When the students are confronted with facts and different opinions, quite a few of them reconsider their position. Some of them even change their minds. Evidently, serious education must go against public opinion in case the latter is misled, and governments should demonstrate best practice in this aspect.
Deterrence and retribution are deemed to be convincing reasons why capital punishment should be retained. The problem is that deterrents do not work, and retribution founded on an eye-for-an-eye model is a criminological concept of the past. Students are not alone in their opinions; they just mirror the mindset of the huge majority of Taiwanese. A recent government poll showed that more than 85 percent of Taiwanese favor capital punishment, obviously on the basis of similar arguments. The real figure is probably even higher.
The international trend points in the other direction: The number of countries that have the death penalty has dropped by nearly 50 percent over the past 15 years. By 1994, 55 nations had abolished the death penalty; last year, Latvia was the 97th country to do so. The trend among US states is similar. And, surprisingly, a UN General Assembly resolution calling upon states to suspend executions with a view to completely abolishing them was passed in 2007. There are only a very few countries in a reversed trend.
Most retentionist nations are not democracies, the US being a remarkable exception. Those having executed the most people last year are China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the US. China, which most likely executes more people than the rest of the world, keeps the number of its executions a secret. One may wonder why.
We know of corrupt hospital administrations which, in cooperation with corrupt judges with an insatiable appetite for handing out death sentences, sell forcefully “donated” organs taken from executed prisoners for large profits, quite often to Taiwanese recipients. The high number of executions creates business for China.
Taiwan is a retentionist country. Over the past two years, Taiwan has executed 12 people. The present administration’s policy is to reduce the use of the death penalty and to gradually move toward its abolition, indirectly acknowledging people’s right to life.
The government is proud of its past human-rights record, with good reason. However, the handling of capital punishment cannot be included in this record: A panel of international experts, invited by the administration last spring, criticized the nation for having violated provisions of the international human rights documents it ratified. The criticism refers to the 12 executions. In all these cases the convicts were put to death without having had the chance to exhaust all possible legal means — as stipulated in those documents — to avoid execution.
In a remarkable interview on ICRT’s Taiwan Talk in September last year, a representative of the Ministry of Justice explained why the nation is not ready to abolish capital punishment in the near future. The interview was remarkable because it demonstrated the government’s deplorable lack of intention and maybe also its ability to pursue goals that go beyond the sheer reproduction of present cultural, often premodern values; it also demonstrated the populism and the “will to assimilation” to common trends and realities, for which the present administration has a well-known reputation.