On this day annually, the symbolic commitment to the abolition of the death penalty is affirmed around the world. Beyond skewed assertions of justice and restitution, the commissioning of the death penalty signifies an excess in governance, a state’s belief that it can legitimately terminate the life of its citizens. Evidence has shown that it often used disproportionately against minorities or as a tool to silence legitimate political criticism.
In creating an underclass that do not warrant human consideration, the death penalty is both at its most starkly offensive and its most vulnerable. And it is here that the human rights movement, with a force of history, interjects. As a response to the atrocities of the holocaust, the human rights movement is built upon the ‘right to life’, to human dignity and respect. While its broad, ab initio challenge to the death penalty has enjoyed some success there is a second site where human rights protest is far more intriguing, and increasingly effective – the ‘death row phenomenon’.
In countries where capital punishment is still enforced, the wait on death row does not last days but years. Overused terms, particularly in human rights lexicons, such as ‘cruel’ and ‘severe’ do not convey the full force of the process of dehumanisation that takes place in such conditions. One of the reasons for the lengthy wait, aside from the basic survival instinct to launch an appeal, is that more and more cases are being referred to human rights tribunals. Ironically, it is not the challenge to death sentence that produces results, but the incidental lethargy of human rights bodies that saves lives. By extending the period of time on death row that prisoners are subjected to, courts apply international precedents in ruling that this is unacceptable.
This disregard of human life sows the seeds of totalitarianism, and it is against this that many organisations are doing vital and important work. On March 3 this year, Sierra Leone’s longest serving woman on death row, MK, finally gained her freedom. In a tragically repeated storyline, she was denied legal advice, made to sign confessions she did not understand and put in solitary confinement while her 21-day appeal period elapsed. She regained a semblance of normality due to the work of NGOs who helped her case reach the Court of Appeal where the decision was finally overturned. For a greater insight into how advocates such as Advocaid have helped, have a look at this recent BBC documentary or visit Advocaid's website.