The World Congress Against the Death Penalty, assembled every 3 years, was held last week in Oslo, Norway during what is an especially poignant moment in the history of the death penalty abolitionist movement.
The meeting took place from Tuesday, June 21 to Thursday, June 23 and was a focal point for death penalty abolitionists around the world, drawing scrutiny to countries who still execute people and presenting a united front amongst a diverse roster of participants.
High-ranking U.N. officials, diplomatic envoys from Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, entertainers, and others convened for the event which featured lectures, debates, and, finally, the “Global March Against the Death Penalty” after closing ceremonies.
Pope Francis made an appearance by video on Tuesday in which he called execution “an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person”, adding that it “likewise contradicts God’s plan for individuals and society and his merciful justice.”
“It does not not render justice to victims, but instead fosters vengeance”, he said in Spanish.
While the practice of capital punishment has been abolished or is no longer practiced by most countries of the industrialized world, it continues to be used by many developing countries, particularly in Asia. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia executed 151 people in 2015 according to Amnesty International (of which 40% were for drug-related offenses), while Iran counted 743 deaths, second only to China in number.
After a number of invitees spoke, Parviz Khazai, a former Iranian ambassador and a leader within the National Council of Resistance in Iran, pointed to the increasing number of executions in Iran. “As a professional diplomat representing the Iranian Diplomatic Mission in Nordic Countries, I quit my post in protest of the continuation of executions and massacres in Iran”, he said. “Now, I am a member of the NCRI.”
He went on to introduce Maryam Rajavi, President of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, to the assemblage. One part of the NCRI’s ten-point platform is the abolition of the death penalty. As a form of parliament-in-exile, the NCRI wishes to replace Iran’s clerical regime during a 6-month interim period to allow for free elections, during which it would undo several human rights reverses enacted by the regime.
While fewer countries permit corporal punishment and death sentencing, those who do have intensified their use of the practice. 2015 saw an unprecedented surge in the number of global executions despite the decline in countries who execute people. China was by far the leader in number, with over 2,000 executions last year.
The event attracted a diverse set of voices calling for forgiveness and an end to the death penalty. In Iran, movie stars joined in the call for a peaceful end to executions without future retributive violence. The increased international scrutiny of Iran’s use of corporal punishment, largely driven by human rights workers’ humane and detailed accounts of individual prisoners’ lives, have already prevented some executions from taking place, say sources inside Iran.
Saudi Arabia was also cited as a country that has continued to use execution despite the dearth of scientific evidence showing its efficacy as a deterrent to crime. According to the Death Penalty Database, most executions in Saudi Arabia are by beheading, although rumors of other methods of execution abound.
Particular attention has been paid to the practice of execution in Muslim countries, some of which are known to use the death penalty under the pretext of Qisas, a controversial term describing a form of retributive law practiced in some interpretations of Sharia jurisprudence.
While some Muslim-majority North African countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia are “abolitionist in practice“, most Muslim countries are classified as “retentionist”, meaning they continue the practice. There are, however, many countries with significant Muslim populations who straddle or neighbor the Middle East who do not use the death penalty, including Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and the Balkan states.