How the Death Penalty is Politicized: A Reflection on the 8th World Congress Against the Death Penalty

World Congress

By Dunia Schaffa, on 27 January 2023

During the 8th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, in Berlin Germany, the phrase “the death penalty is being used as a political tool” was used frequently – in panels, in round tables, in speeches, even amongst the participants getting a coffee in between Congress events.

Indeed, the application of the death penalty has always been an incredibly politicized decision, furthering the political agenda of leaders and lawmakers who encourage it. During the plenary discussion “The New Abolitionist Generation: Transmission and Innovation” Nina Joy Makena (8th World Congress participant, Member of the Abolition Now Tour – Kenya) remarked that the death penalty’s design is to permanently punish those who do not obey the rules, and who exhibit undesirable social behavior. When applied to the oppression of minorities, or the suppression of political resistance whose thoughts are deemed dangerous, it becomes a dangerous arm of political power that is judicially sanctified. 

A prime example of politicization and a topic that was vehemently discussed during the World Congress was capital punishment in Iran. To the Iranian authorities, the death penalty is used as a consequence to protesting, amongst many other crimes. To censor public protest, application of the death penalty is justified by the Iranian regime to arbitrarily arrest, detain, torture and potentially publicly execute protesters, which serves as a message to others who are thinking of protesting and challenging the authorities. This creates and inserts fear within society as it illustrates what political prisoners might face, especially in times in which “every execution is a political execution” (Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, 8th World Congress participant, Professor of Neuroscience and Director of Iran Human Rights).

According to Amiry-Moghaddam, “the people in Iran might face a mass execution” for Iran to keep their political repression intact. As Jean Asselborn (8th World Congress participant, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Luxembourg) put it during the plenary discussion “Instrumentalization of the Death Penalty for Political Purposes”, “Iran is against their own people”. During this plenary discussion Amiry-Moghaddam also mentioned that “as soon as the Iranian regime fears protests and potential tumults, the number of death sentences and executions increases”; an increase which has been steadily rising since the protests caused by the death of Mahsa Amini under police detention for wearing her hijab in a way that did not align with State standards. Furthermore, Amiry-Moghaddam raised a notion on Amini’s background as she was of Kurdish descent. He stated that there has to be a close look to minorities, who “in oppressive regimes [are] even more affected”.

This links to another source of death penalty politicization – racism. Trey Legall (8th World Congress participant, Member of the Abolition Now Tour – USA) discussed the death penalty in the American context during “The New Abolitionist Generation: Transmission and Innovation” panel. He expressed that the death penalty undeniably underlies a racist foundation, as it goes back to slavery, lynching and higher incarceration rates of Black, Latinx, indigenous, and other marginalized populations. It can thus be referred to as a “colonial legacy of slavery”. Moreover, he dived into the topic of social justice in the USA and mentioned the existence of a hierarchy when it comes to the question of who gets to be victimized. The person or people who are victimized can, rightly or wrongly, benefit from the privilege of being considered a victim, which prompted Legall to ask broader questions of “who is considered human?” and “who gets the right to be human?”. In the USA, being considered a victim can have an important impact in the application of capital punishment. In states that continue to execute, they do so in the name of victims and their family members, while denying that the person convicted of the crime can also be a victim of unjust treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. Many retentionist politicians in the USA who claim to be on the side of justice and on the side of the victim, instrumentalize the death penalty for their own political ambitions. 

Lastly, the death penalty becomes a political tool to dehumanize people. This is possible through “othering” people, making them the enemy or the outsider and stripping their human rights away. They become unworthy of ethical treatment which leads to the justification of capital punishment being imposed on them. This means that the state is one step closer and one opponent less to get their political agenda realized. This aligns with a statement of the Minister of Justice of the Republic of Malawi, Titus Mvalo, who during the during the Opening Ceremony of the 8th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in the penal discussion “Building Alliances towards Abolition” said that “No one has the right to take away a life except the state, which is the problem”. 

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