The Wilson Quarterly

Over the last 50 years, theprevalence of capital punishment around the world has decreased dramatically. By 1970, a total of 21 countries had abolished capital punishment. Today, 103 have done so, and 36 more have the death penalty on the books but have not executed anyone in at least 10 years. In Europe, Central and South America, and Africa, capital punishment is exceedingly rare. There remain four death penalty strongholds: the United States, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Asia. Asia, home to 60 percent of the world’s population, accounts for more than 90 percent of the executions of recent years.

Still, the death penalty’s prevalence in Asia is diminishing, writes David T. Johnson, a professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Of 29 Asian jurisdictions, just 13 have capital punishment and only four—China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Singapore—use it with any frequency. These countries do not provide official data on the number of executions (in China it’s a crime to disclose that figure), but Johnson says that China “probably” executed an average of 15,000 people a year between 1998 and 2001. Singapore, with a population only a little larger than Houston’s, executed upward of 70 people in 1994 and 1995, approximately as many as Houston did for the entire period from 1976 to 2004—and Houston is “the most aggressive executing jurisdiction in the most aggressive executing state in the most aggressive executing democracy in the world.” Fifty-two people were executed in the United States in 2009.

In the last few years the number of executions has fallen dramatically, with just 14 in Singapore between 2005 and 2008 and perhaps as few as 5,000 a year in China by 2008. Many countries (including India, Japan, Thailand, and Muslim-majority nations such as Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia) have instituted temporary death penalty moratoriums in recent decades.

There are two causes behind capital punishment’s decline in Asia, and they’re the same two that have driven executions down around the world: the fall of authoritarian regimes (which explains abolition in Cambodia, East Timor, and the Philippines) and the ascent of left-liberal parties (which explains execution rate declines in South Korea and Taiwan). The absence of these two factors in Japan may account for continuing use of the death penalty there, Johnson says.

One “noncause”: public opinion. “There is strong support for capital punishment everywhere in Asia where the issue has been studied—whatever the execution rate,” Johnson notes. The push for abolition tends to come from the “very top of the power structure.” It’s a delicate irony: Democracies tend to do away with the death penalty, despite widespread support for it.

THE SOURCE: “Asia’s Declining Death Penalty” by David T. Johnson, in The Journal of Asian Studies, May 2010.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/lecercle

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