China Moves to Restrict Death Penalty—But Not For Drugs

Last Friday, United Nations human rights experts welcomed a recommendation by India to abolish the death penalty, as well as a decision to reduce the number of crimes subject to capital punishment in China, the world’s top executioner by far. The better news was that concerning India—which has thousands on death row, but has only carried out four executions so far this century.

In August, the Indian Law Commission issued a report concluding that the death penalty does not act as an effective deterrent and recommended its abolition for all crimes except terrorism-related offenses.

“I encourage the Indian authorities to implement these recommendations and to move towards the complete abolition of the death penalty for all offenses,” Christof Heyns, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial or arbitrary executions, said.

Juan Méndez, the special rapporteur on torture, noted that the Commission “recognized the immense suffering caused by the death row phenomenon as a seemingly inevitable consequence of the imposition of the death penalty.” He added that “this recognition supports the emergence of a customary norm that considers the death penalty as, per se, running afoul of the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Meanwhile, China amended several provisions of its criminal law after the session of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment for several offenses, including the smuggling of weapons, ammunition, nuclear materials and counterfeit currency; arranging or forcing a person to carry out prostitution; obstruction of duty of a police officer; and creating rumors during wartime to mislead people.

“By adopting these amendments to its criminal code, China has made progress in the right direction; this needs to be encouraged,” Heyns and Méndez jointly noted. “These new developments in India and China are in line with the general trend towards the abolition of the death penalty at a global level, even if there are isolated moves in the opposite direction.”

This is indeed a big step in the right direction. But note that China is not dropping the death penalty for drug-related offenses.

China continues to top the list in the use of the death penalty worldwide. This makes it the foremost contributor to a global spike in the use of the death penalty—despite the abolition of capital punishment by some two-thirds of the world’s nations. While the number of executions in China is kept secret, Amnesty International believes thousands are put to death there every year—including drug offenders.

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