Time for Thailand to Take a Stand against Death

October 10 marks the 10th World Day Against the Death Penalty. I am proud to say that the inalienable right to life is enshrined in the Constitution of my country, Timor-Leste. Our struggle for independence was not without sacrifice. Many of our loved ones died in the quest for self-determination and dignity, a constant reminder of the sacredness of life. Therefore, one of our first priorities upon gaining independence 10 years ago was to ensure that no one would be subject to the death penalty.

This reverence for human life is consistent with humanity’s experience of the modern world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, formulated after the devastating world wars that caused the deaths of tens of millions of people, declares in Article 3 “Everyone has the right to life”. Similarly, Cambodia emerged from the savagery of its Killing Fields with a Constitution that also upholds the sacredness of life. The Philippines, another ASEAN member, has also abolished the death penalty.

At the time the Declaration was proclaimed in 1948, only eight countries had abolished the death penalty. On September 13th of this year, the UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki Moon reported that the number of countries which have now, in one form or another, abolished the death penalty has reached a total of 150 States, while another 32 are retentionist.

Although Thailand retains the death penalty, there have been only 2 executions since 2009. The government of Thailand has told the UN that it is studying the possibility of abolishing the death penalty. Abolition of the death penalty has been included in Thailand’s National Human Rights Program of 2009 to 2013. On August 15th this year, there was a remarkable commutation of sentence from execution to life imprisonment of all 58 condemned prisoners.

The resolution calling for a World Wide Moratorium on the Death Penalty has been presented at the UN General Assembly 3 times already in 2007, 2008, and 2010. Thailand on the first two occasions voted against the Moratorium, but in 2010, abstained.

In December, a vote on a Moratorium will again be submitted to the UN General Assembly. I hope, as a friend of Thailand, that it will vote in favor of the resolution. While the votes have been enough to get the resolution passed, with an increasing number of countries voting “Yes” with each occasion, it is important that Thailand votes “yes” as official evidence of the moral stand of its government and people. Just as importantly, I sincerely hope that Thailand follows up on such an official commitment by stopping the imposition of death sentences and executions.

What motivation can be proposed to favor a step forward for countries which still hesitate?  For centuries now, law makers and humanists have come to realize that the death penalty does not deter serious crime. Caesar Beccaria, an Italian criminologist pointed out in a famous work on Crime and Punishment, that execution was an ineffective deterrent, that certainty of detection and punishment were the only bar to crime.

There are many arguments for a Moratorium on execution. The Council of Europe, an association of 47 states, makes abolition of the death penalty a condition of membership, declaring boldly: “Capital Punishment, like torture, is simply wrong”. The death penalty doe not deter crime, however much is to be gained in emphasizing the inviolability of human life. In the history of Asia, there is an emphasis on mercy, kindness and forgiveness in all our faiths and cultural values.

As member of a brother nation in the family of Asian nations I hope that all the countries of Asia will join Timor-Leste in the UN General Assembly to cast a positive vote in favor of life over death. I am very proud that Timor-Leste does not have the death penalty, and that the maximum prison sentence is 25 years. We do not have life imprisonment.

Jose Ramos-Horta
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1996)
President of Timor-Leste (2007-2012)
Former Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister