Growing movement to abolish death penalty worldwide: Interview with Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan

The 5th World Congress against the Death Penalty took place in Madrid, Spain, last week with over 1,500 participants from 90 countries.  Government representatives, intergovernmental organizations and civil society leaders came together to contribute to one of the biggest abolitionist movements in the world aiming for one goal – the universal abolition of the death penalty.

Out of all the countries in the world, 105 have abolished death penalty, 36 are abolitionist de facto, meaning they still have capital punishment in the law but have not executed anyone in ten years, while 57 are still retentionist, including most of Asia and some countries in Africa.

Thailand saw no executions for six years from 2003 but resumed with the execution by lethal injection of two drug offenders in 2009, although the government announced a plan to abolish the death penalty in its 5th Human Rights Action Plan 2009-20013. 

Prachatai talked to Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, Executive Director of Together Against the Death Penalty, a Paris-based, non-profit organization, who, together with the World Coalition against the Death Penalty and with sponsorship from the Swiss, French, Norwegian and Spanish governments, organized the 5th World Congress against the Death Penalty.

Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, Executive Director of Together Against the Death Penalty

He added during the interview that the Congress had invited representatives from the Thai government as well as from ASEAN’s human rights body, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), but they did not attend.

“We have pushed and tried for Thailand to come because we know that Thailand is a country where we can discuss (about the issue), but they didn’t come and I don’t know why,” he said.


The congress has been around for 13 years so far. What trends have you seen develop over the past years around the issue of abolition?

Since the last world congress in Strasburg, France, in 2001, until now, in 13 years we have seen a huge trend towards abolition. Now two thirds of the countries of the world are abolitionist in law or de facto. 15 years ago it was the opposite. Two thirds of the world’s countries were executing people. Maybe this is one of the human rights issues where we have had most success compared to freedom of the press, etc.

But we now face many difficulties because we have more difficult countries to convince to abolish death penalty.

Out of all issues in the world, why did you choose to dedicate yourself and your energy to this issue?

All human rights issues are in the abolition of death penalty. When I say all, I mean the first right is the right to life. Even for criminal, for anybody. And the right to life is much more important than everything. And if the state can say ‘I have the right, legally, to take the life of another person’, they could say ‘I have the right to stop press freedom’. They can say ‘I have the right to offend women or minorities or anything’. So the first right to life is the most important right to defend. That is why I dedicated my life, my time and my energy to abolish the death penalty all over the world.

You could say, yes but there is extrajudicial execution. You can kill without the death penalty, without the law. But it is important I agree. It is not that you abolish the death penalty and you do not have executions. But it is not legal; it is like slavery or torture. When you have abolished all slavery or torture in the world, it does not mean that torture does not exist anymore. But now it is not legal, it is not moral.

Many country leaders say that the death penalty is still a popular option. They say if we abolish capital punishment they the people would feel unsafe. How would you respond to that?

The feeling of being unsafe is the reality. But the criminality is not what they feel. I mean many people think that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. All research and all statistics show, very very clearly, that the death penalty does not prevent crime. It is not a deterrent to crime. It was true in the States and it was very easy to see, because you have states in the US which abolished the death penalty long time ago. There are states which abolished the death penalty for five years, and then relaunched executions. And during the five years we took the statistics, before, between and after. You know what we have noticed is that there were lower crime rates during the time when the death penalty was virtually abolished. Why? Because the model of violence has disappeared.

You can easily understand that criminals do not think about the punishment. They don’t think about the consequences. Criminals never think about consequences. Except one type of criminality, terrorism, that falls under people who don’t care about being killed. They don’t care about dying. It is the opposite; they want to die to become true terrorists. But of all criminals, if he’s a psychopath or mentally ill, you don’t think about this kind of issue. A criminal who robbed a bank and killed the guards, it was an action where he will never think ‘okay, I’ll stop robbing banks because of death penalty’. If you use rationality, everybody knows that the death penalty is not a deterrent.

So the real the truth about the support for the death penalty and the real truth is that people want revenge. They need revenge. They would never say ‘I want blood for blood’. They would never say ‘I need to see someone dead’ if you are not the victim’s family. Even if you are just a normal citizen you want him dead because you are afraid of him. And that is the only question. It is personal thinking about what you’re frightened of.

And justice is not revenge. The justice system is not revenge. I don’t speak about issue of innocence, which is a huge issue, because we are human, and our legal systems are human systems. Everywhere. In the US in the past years we found 150 innocent people and more who are on death row. Can you imagine that?

In the Innocence Project, which was launched by Northwestern University in Chicago; the researchers send a team of journalists and lawyers to reopen cases of people on death row and still living, because they don’t have time to open all cases. For sure, the state has killed innocent people and right here at this congress, we have many former death row inmates who have been found innocent after a while, sometimes after 6 years, sometimes after 20 years, sometimes after 30 years on death row.

And this is the reality. One day I was with the Minister of Justice of Jordan in the Middle East. I was telling him this story and he told me ‘Yes, you’re right, but our justice system is perfect, the US justice system is not good. Ours is good.’

Maybe? I don’t think so.

What do you expect from this congress?

My expectation is a wake-up call for many countries, a wake-up call for Thailand, the Thai government, its ministries, and Thailand’s elite – judges and lawyers. Human rights and also journalism is a good part of civil society. And we are really hoping for this kind of wake-up call, and also regional networking. I think it would be very useful to work together among ASEAN countries.

I know that ASEAN just launched a human rights council (referring to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights). Why are they not here? We have invited them. Why is there no death penalty working group inside the council just to discuss, to have dialogue among the human rights organizations in ASEAN? I want that to be a process like in Africa. The African Union has the African Council for Human Rights and inside they have a special working group on the death penalty. That’s why we need a wake-up call from Asian organizations, governmental and intergovernmental organizations.

I hope my expectation, not for this world congress but for the next world congress, is to have as many Asian ministers of justice or ministers of foreign affairs participating in our congress. This is my dream.

Some Asian diplomatic delegations and some ambassadors from Madrid came. Minister of Justice of the Philippines is the only one who is here. Well, the Philippines and Cambodia are the only countries in ASEAN that have abolished death penalty.

Cambodia is one of the most powerful examples of abolition. They have experienced one of the worst crime systems in the world. Much worse than rape, and I don’t mean that it is not bad, worse than everything. They decided to abolish the death penalty. And Cambodian society is no more violent than in China, I think. All the countries and peoples who have experienced genocide -- Israel, Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia -- these four countries have abolished the death penalty. They don’t have the death penalty, even in Rwanda and Burundi; they are the last countries in the African Great Lakes area (to abolish death penalty.)


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