Op-Eds


Will democracy bring the demise of the hangman?

David Johnson and Franklin Zimring, New Scientist

By David Johnson and Franklin Zimring, New Scientist

WILL the death penalty become a thing of the past? It is looking that way in many parts of the world. More than 100 countries - about half the world's nations - have abolished it. In Asia, however, the appetite for putting people to death still appears strong. The continent is now responsible for more than 90 per cent of the world's executions.

Even in Asia executions are frequent only in the authoritarian nations of China, Vietnam, North Korea and Singapore. Yet this still invites the question: why are some Asian countries clinging to capital punishment while the rest of the world turns away from it? Many commentators believe the key reason is "Asian values". As Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister, said in 2002: "The basic difference in our approach [to capital punishment] springs from our traditional Asian value system, which places the interests of the community over and above that of the individual."

We have found little evidence to support this view. The biggest obstacle to ending executions in Asia is politics, not culture. Often, the trigger for a decline in capital punishment is a degree of democracy and an easing of authoritarianism. Not long ago, Taiwan and South Korea had authoritarian governments and aggressive death penalty policies. After decades of development, both shifted to multiparty systems and execution rates plunged. What's more, culture cannot explain why North and South Korea have such radically different policies on this issue: we know of no two countries that possess as many cultural similarities.

All of this suggests that the main explanation for high execution rates in certain Asian countries is the authoritarian politics of their leaders. As the region continues to develop and become more democratic, we expect the executioner to become a vanishing species.

David Johnson is professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Franklin Zimring is professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. They are co-authors of The Next Frontier, published last month by Oxford University Press

3/16/2009