There is an observable trend towards the abolition of the death penalty in Africa. More than two thirds of African states have now either abolished the practice or have long-standing moratoria on its use. As of October 2014, seventeen African states have abolished the death penalty by enacting national legislation. A further twenty-five State Parties have not carried out an execution for ten years. Only twelve states retain the death penalty and have recently used it, with the majority of executions occurring in Somalia or Sudan.
This trajectory parallels an interpretation of international human rights law as progressively abolitionist. Although the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) made a provision for countries that had not already abolished the death penalty, it established stringent conditions under which it could continue. In those countries where it remains, international safeguards aim to ensure legality and fair trial, principles of equality and consistency, and minimum standards of protection for vulnerable groups, as well as entailing imposition only for the most serious crimes. Concurrently, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights is working to attach an Optional Protocol to the African Charter for abolition.
Despite these promising trends, it is important not to overlook the shadow that the death penalty still casts. Where it remains, the death penalty can be imposed for offenses that do not meet the international legal threshold of “most serious crimes”. The case of Meriam Ibrahim, sentenced to death for apostasy in Sudan, brought this issue to global headlines earlier this year. Similarly, the extensive remit of military tribunals in Somalia remains a concern. The mass-sentencing of more than 600 people in Egypt is an extreme example. Moreover, while moratoria on executions should be welcomed, if they are not accompanied by a change in judicial practice, long-term moratoria result in a large number of people languishing on “death row”, a condition which may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Still, these reflections should not detract from the positive developments that continue across much of the continent. There has been a review of the penal code in Comoros as well as proposals for constitutional change in Ghana and Sierra Leone towards abolition. In Chad a new penal code that made no allowance for the death penalty was approved. Discussion on the matter continues to grow in Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Morocco. This continental trend would be further accentuated if the number of African states that have accepted recommendations made under the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to work towards abolition, put them into practice.
It must be said that campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty has a certain allure for activists due to the clear-cut distinction between retentionist and abolitionist states, as well as the uplifting transition from one to the other. However, a focus on the number of abolitionist states, designed to make the problem appear one concerning an ever-diminishing proportion of the world, might also partially disguise the human cost of its continued practice. From the perspective of the right to life, a focus on the death penalty can also be reductionist. Capital punishment is not the most significant threat to life in Africa, claiming fewer than 250 lives over the past seven years. In this regard, the enlargement of the mandate of the African Commission’s Working Group on the Death Penalty also to include Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings, was a welcome development.
This is an abridged version of an article by Thomas Probert originally posted for African Arguments:
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