Demanding the right to hang
The call for the death penalty in Sri Lanka has been gaining momentum
in the recent weeks. Such thirst for vengeance is unbecoming of a
Buddhist society that lays claim to a philosophy of compassion. A
society so easily seduced by the bloodlust of premeditated murder cannot
continue to profess the virtues of metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha.
As Sri Lankans, the detailed and profound understanding of what
entails wilful and premeditated destruction of life, articulated as the
first of the five precepts in Buddhist teaching – is what defines us as
a Buddhist society. It is the core of our being, and it is who we are.
As Pope Francis called for a “global abolition of the death penalty”
during a joint session of the United States Congress, the people of this
so-called dharmadveepa are calling for their pound of flesh – their
right to hang.
Judicial murder is never the answer – however, heinous the crime. In
civilised societies, one cannot have the power of life and death over
any other human being.
It is not a right we can claim through judicial ritual or by evoking
eye-for-an-eye vengeance. Contemplating the reintroduction of the death
penalty, the wilful taking of life, thinly veiled in judicial
respectability, is hideous.
Justification for institutionalised murder is often presented as
righteous and necessary for the protection of wider society – as the
ultimate deterrent to criminal activity. But surely, such justifications
are spurious if they are merely based on whim, political expedience or
populist belief rather than tangible evidence that prove a causal link
between the death penalty and a reduction in violent crime.
The truth is, no such evidentiary link is apparent, and there is no
reliable proof that such a link has ever existed. At best the studies
suggest the evidence is inconclusive.
The champions of capital punishment often point to countries such as
Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia as beacons of justice, claiming their
unrelenting zeal in practising judicial murder has made these societies
safer. But the work of criminologists like Columbia Law School's Jeffrey
Fagan exposes the hollowness of this argument. Fagan and two of his
colleagues found there was no tangible difference in the level of
serious crime in Hong Kong, that has abolished the death penalty, and
Singapore that has continued with the practice.
Similarly, a study conducted by Yale University’s law professor John
Donohue and the University of Pennsylvania’s Justin Wolfers, came to the
Their comprehensive study, published in the prestigious Stanford Law
Review, examined penal data from 1934, covering executing and
non-executing states in the US and Canada.
Baying for blood in the absence of evidence that proves the death
penalty’s efficacy as a deterrent makes a mockery of any claims it is
necessary for crime prevention and the protection of society. Rather, it
reveals a telling bloodlust – a base desire for vengeance, a desire to
be party to revenge murder, to take a human life under the guise of
maintaining law and order protected by judicial respectability. It is
primal and primitive behaviour that should have no place in enlightened
Justice and vengeance
To present execution as a viable penalty, in a country where
political interference has destroyed any semblance of judicial
independence and integrity – where there exists a de facto two-tier
justice system favouring those with wealth and political power, where
the instruments of law can be bought and wielded at will, and where a
chief justice can be arbitrarily ousted without due process – is beyond
While we must certainly seek justice for victims of crime, it is
important we recognise that justice and vengeance are not the same.
Sadly, even a former Chairman of a Prison Inspection Committee, equated
justice with vengeance in a recent newspaper op-ed piece claiming: “This
horrible crime must be avenged for its own sake.” Such inciteful
writings only serve to show the poor grasp we have of justice and only
further stress why we should not have the right of life and death over
Any decision to reintroduce the death penalty in Sri Lanka,
ultimately rubber stamped by a president and cabinet, will in reality,
be a decision by Sri Lankans by virtue of our action or indeed our
As a civilised society that celebrates and revels in the achievements
of its most promising, we must also accept a duty of care to our most
The barbarity of the death penalty is not life affirming, it only
serves to cheapen human life and strips us of our humanity, which is why
the reintroduction of the death penalty is something every Sri Lankan
must consider deeply – it is not a moral choice we can delegate to
This notion of the death penalty requires some serious
soul-searching. This is even more important for every Buddhist in the
country who proclaims they live in a dharmadveepa and claim to live by
Dr. Kasun Ubayasiri is a former Sri Lankan journalist, media ethicist
and journalism academic. He is the Director of the Griffith University
Bachelor of Journalism Program and a member of the Griffith University
Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance, and is a Research
Associate at The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence
in Policing and Security.
[EU denounces death penalty]
To mark the International Day against the Death Penalty which fell on
10 October, the European Union has issued the following statement.
It said the death penalty is a cruel and ineffective punishment. The
European Union, Norway and Switzerland oppose the death penalty in all
“The EU welcomes the announcement by the Minister of Justice
Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe that Sri Lanka would vote in favour of the UN
General Assembly resolution on a moratorium on the death penalty. The
death penalty represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and
violates the right to life universally affirmed in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights and reaffirmed in the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights. Its worldwide abolition is a priority.
“Evidence from around the world shows that there is no evidence that
the death penalty deters crime. The death penalty is irreversible.
Mistaken identity and wrongful convictions do happen. Many death
sentences are issued after confessions obtained by torture. Innocent
You are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are poor or
belong to an ethnic or religious minority,” it stated.
The EU also stated that in 2014, at least 22 countries around the
world carried out executions and at least 2,466 people were sentenced to
death – an increase of 28%. “Many of those convicted spend years on
death row, waiting to see if a reprieve will be granted. Sri Lanka
currently has more than 400 prisoners under sentence of death adding
that 101 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes.”