Ethiopia: Capital Punishment - an Overkill, Irreversible

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The Council of Ministers has recently endorsed a bill and tabled it for parliament this month, which aims at deterring human traffickers and those involved in the illegal migration scheme.

One of the articles in the bill proposes making the extreme forms of this act punishable by death.

It has been a while since any law whose transgression has consequences in capital punishment has surfaced in parliament. This, no doubt, catches attention.

Granted, the attempt to address the problem of illegal migration and human trafficking is well-intentioned. But introducing the death penalty may be an overkill, and should at the very least be discussed widely.

Migration has become one of the biggest headaches of the last decade for governments everywhere. It used to be just an after effect of war and conflict. Not anymore. It is now a non-stop global problem.

Increasing income inequality in the global south, in addition to the traditional migration drivers of war and conflict, have been tributaries of the non-stop flow of rivers of migrants to the relatively calmer waters of the north: the rich world. As long as the desperation that drives people to take the enormous risks of migration is not addressed, there will always be those that will take advantage of this desperation to make money.

The recruiting agents and the human traffickers are not going to quit unless the underlying problems are solved and dry up their business.

However, states that have exhausted all the tricks in their books without much success are turning to unconventional means. They seem to prefer increasingly harsher measures in their effort to turn the tide. This runs the gamut from building ridiculously long walls along borders to suggestions of digging human-made ditches in order to stop the inflow to shoot-to-kill orders in countries battling the outflow.

Ethiopia seems to be joining this league of nations, though only by employing an existing law.

Not just in this particular bill but in general, the issue of capital punishment seems to be a neglected topic in the Ethiopian civil discourse. There has never been much dialogue and public debate on the issue. Partly, it could be because executions are not frequent. But it remains in the books, and as long as it does, it should be up for the test of public debate.

It is about time Ethiopians start a public dialogue on the topic, especially now that not only are the authorities letting what is in the books stay there, but they are even adding to it.

Those who advocate for the death penalty start their argument by highlighting the awfulness of the crimes committed and the need to deter others from doing the same. What the draft law, for instance, makes punishable by death is a severe crime often committed on children, the weak and involves drug trafficking as well as the smuggling of weapons.

There is a great deal of extortion going on, at times resulting in the death of victims. It is a truly horrendous crime and not one lightly applied.

Such gruesome acts trigger anger among members of the public, particularly when it is committed on the defenceless and children. Understandably, the reaction in society crosses beyond the call to see justice done toward the urge for vengeance.

The question is whether a civilised justice system - that is not barbaric in its application - should succumb to this human emotion of revenge? Isn't the whole point of the law reining in such sentiments, having a dispassionate search for the truth and meting out a proportional punishment to serve justice?

Then there is the deterrence argument.

The belief that the fear of capital punishment stops individuals from committing crimes is nothing but intuitive in its reasoning. There is little empirical evidence, however, to prove that capital punishment is a more effective deterrent than life imprisonment. Amnesty International reports that states without the death penalty continue to have significantly lower murder rates than those that retain capital punishment.

The lack of overwhelming evidence of the deterrence effect has to be weighed against the historically documented cases of the limitations of the death penalty, including unacceptably high wrongful convictions. For example, more than 160 prisoners sent to death row in the United States have later been exonerated or released from death row since 1973 on the grounds of innocence. There have been many accused defendants executed despite serious doubts about their guilt, according to Amnesty International. One gets exonerated for every 10 executed, says the American Civil Liberties Union.

The universal recognition of the limitations of the effectiveness of the death penalty is behind the reason why an increasing number of countries have outlawed it entirely. There were only 16 countries in the world that had done so 40 years ago. It reached 106 countries last year.

Apart from the general arguments here, since the bill under the legislative process is a concrete case that will be affecting real people, it is essential to consider Ethiopia's criminal justice system that will be tasked to enforce it.

Most of the sources of the migration in Ethiopia are rural areas. The people smugglers and their recruiting agents are not operating in urban centres. The arrests and the initial contact with the law enforcement system will be happening in these areas. These are the parts of the country where the capacity of the arresting officers to follow the proper safeguards to protect the rights of the accused is suspect. The judicial system is so overburdened, understaffed and the jurisprudence capacity questionable that the wrongful conviction of innocent people could be high. There is a legitimate fear that innocent people will fall victim.

The death penalty is an absolute punishment that will be carried out by an imperfect and often incompetent - not to say corrupt - criminal justice system.

Should society trust it with this heavy responsibility?

"The risk of executing innocent defendants can be entirely eliminated by treating any penalty more severe than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as constitutionally excessive," John Paul Stevens, a former US Supreme Court Justice, once said.

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