A group of UK human rights experts yesterday said that it requires strong political leadership to steer a nation toward completely doing away with capital punishment.
Leading a delegation of three people on a three-day visit to Taiwan, British Member of Parliament Keir Starmer told a news conference in Taipei that strong public disapproval is an issue that confronts every nation that moves away from the use of the death penalty.
“It certainly confronted the UK when we abolished the death penalty,” Starmer said. “At that time public opinion was in favor of death penalty.”
“Almost every country made the argument that there is something special about their cultural traditions which require it to keep the death penalty,” said Starmer, cofounder of a London-based law firm that specializes in civil liberties and human rights.
With President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration pledging to be a government guided by public opinion, Starmer said that there were three things that helped prompt changes in the UK five decades ago to restrict the use of capital punishment.
“The first was strong political leadership, which said: ‘This sentence is wrong in principle and we will have nothing more to do with it,’” he said.
As most people only talk about the death penalty in the abstract, he said the second motivator was to offer the public a glimpse into how capital punishment was actually carried out.
When people saw how it worked in practice, they were very uncomfortable with the death penalty, he added.
Starmer said the third element was that capital punishment has become an indicator of whether a country is progressive, forward-looking and wanting to join the family of countries that have gotten rid of the death penalty.
“Or, whether it wants to be seen by others as being stuck in the past with countries that are unwilling to change,” Starmer said, adding that courageous political leadership combined with a better understanding of the death penalty could cause public opinions to change.
Starmer declined to reveal details of his meeting with Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) and Minister of Justice Chiu Tai-san (邱太三) on Wednesday, saying only that the discussions were “constructive.”
As one of three democracies worldwide that still carry out death sentences, Taiwan has executed 33 death-row inmates since 2010, with the last one being Taipei MRT killer Cheng Chieh (鄭捷) in May last year. There are 41 people on death row.
Death Penalty Project co-executive director Saul Lehrfreund, who is a member of the delegation, said research he has done with academics, universities and criminologists show that public perceptions of capital punishment are not black-and-white.
“For example, if you ask the public an abstract question: ‘Do you support the death penalty?’ It is very probable that the vast majority of people would support the death penalty,” Lehrfreund said.
“However, if you ask people how strongly they support the death penalty, you will find the majority of people do not come back and say they support the death penalty strongly,” Lehrfreund said. “They may support it, but not so much that they would not accept changes.”
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