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"The death penalty: The most flawed and contradictory notion of justice"

To support the death penalty for drug related offences is a completely naive, uneducated, and barbaric belief. Yet capital punishment has been used throughout history as a deterrent for various behaviours and actions that society has deemed unacceptable.

From pickpocketing to drug trafficking, from theft to homosexuality, a range of ‘offences’ have been depicted as horrendous enough to justify the intentional homicide of another human being. Yes, homicide. According to forensic pathologists, there are only four types of death: suicide, homicide, accidental or natural. Capital punishment comes into the category of homicide. It may be considered ‘justifiable’, yet it is still homicide and must be treated as so. 

Despite some popular support, the arguments against the death penalty far surmount any arguments in support, particularly in a nation like Sri Lanka where Buddhism is literally Constitutionally protected. Under Chapter II, Article 9, the Sri Lankan Constitution states, “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana…”. True Buddhists place great importance on non-violent acts in compassion for all life. A nation that supports the death penalty undermines the practices of Buddhism, and for the President to make considerable efforts to protect sacred texts through UNESCO whilst advocating for the hanging of Sri Lankan citizens is an overwhelming contradiction. 

In fact, the entire notion of deterrence is flawed and hence, capital punishment does not and will not ever work in preventing crimes. Dissuading offending through the fear of punishment has never truly worked. For deterrence to succeed, the individual must be rational and with free will (not suffering any mental illness, trauma, substance use, disability, poverty or illness), and the risks of the offence must outweigh the benefits. The perfect amalgamation of these circumstances is rare. 

A fantastic article regarding deterrence recounts tales of pickpockets picking the pockets of unwitting victims whilst pickpockets were being hanged for the very same offence.[1] The public spectacle of a hanging drew many new victims and allowed pickpockets to move through unsuspecting crowds. If there was ever an example of deterrence entirely not working, this is it. 

For decades, Criminologists and experts in the field have tried to convince the public of this. Countless academic journal articles, studies, experiments and papers have been released, all with the same underlying notion; deterrence does not work. But why listen to experts when the public and politicians can create their own misinformed opinions based on irrationality and anger rather than any real evidence? 

And all these arguments have been laid out before even highlighting that the President wishes to reintroduce the death penalty for drug related offences. Drug use, dealing and trafficking need to be treated as health and social issues. Does the President consider why these death row prisoners were trafficking drugs? Was it financial or social pressure? It would be hard to find someone who traffics drugs for the sole purpose of inflicting harm on users. The President needs to turn to rehabilitation rather than retribution for those who commit inherently non-violent crimes. He seems to preach the idea but from his current behaviour, is far from acting on it. Fostering a social system that allows individuals to thrive and succeed seems a better option than executing those who deviate to likely make ends meet. 

As quoted by the famed philosopher Michel Foucault, “there is no glory in punishing.” Punishment serves to quench the revenge driven thirsts of society but in reality, achieves nothing. If anything, it causes greater detriment to a collective society like Sri Lanka where the executed or imprisoned person is removed from their family and unable to provide. 

Sirisena was recently quoted saying he does not wish to become like President Duterte of the Philippines. Duterte has allowed and encouraged the extra-judicial killings of thousands of Filipinos for drug related offences, yet Sirisena called on this as an “example to the world”.[2] The inhumane, immoral and completely unethical killings that have taken place in the Philippines could be the future of Sri Lanka if the President continues on his current war path.

Creating a moral panic surrounding drugs is a cheap way to secure political support for the upcoming elections, and if the President wishes to build “an ethical country for the future generation”[3], reintroducing the death penalty is about as far removed from this concept as one could get. 

It would be a humanitarian nightmare if Sri Lanka carried out the executions of the proposed individuals, and with most states abolishing the death penalty, this would be something the international system is unlikely to forget.


[1] Refer to ‘The Deterrence Hypothesis and Picking Pockets at the Pickpocket’s Hanging’ by David A. Anderson.

[2] Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/18/example-to-the-world-sri-lanka-president-plans-to-copy-dutertes-war-on-drugs

[3] Retrieved from http://www.colombopage.com/archive_19A/Apr01_1554121779CH.php