On June 15th 1999, Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam gave a speech in Parliament condemning the proposal by the Kumaratunga government to reintroduce the death penalty.
In light of the recent announcement on the part of the Maithripala Sirisena government to reintroduce the death penalty, “with plans to execute 19 death row prisoners convicted of drug-related offences,” Neelan’s words, in condemnation of the death penalty, seem more relevant now than ever before.
“The last hanging in this country took place in 1976. Although the death penalty remains part of our statute book and death sentences are passed, they are automatically commuted. In view of the disturbing incidence of gruesome crime and the increase in crime, it has been proposed that the death sentence should apply in a limited number of circumstances. I refer to the statement that has been issued by the Presidential Secretariat with regard to this matter. It states that the death penalty will now be carried out in accordance with a procedure where it will seek the recommendations of the trial judge, the Attorney-General and the Ministry of Justice as to whether such a sentence should be executed. I would like to express my strong moral opposition to this measure.
Firstly, in a society where the sanctity of life continues to be debased, it is morally wrong to enforce the death penalty even in these limited circumstances.
Secondly, the UN Commission on Human Rights recently passed a resolution asking all countries that have the death penalty in their statute books to refrain from implementing it and to suspend operations with regard to the death penalty. So after the last hanging in 1976, Sri Lanka now goes back in history, and against the trend of international public opinion, to revive the death penalty. It would, in my respectful view, be a retrograde step.
Thirdly, there is no credible evidence that the death penalty ever served as an effective deterrent against crime. There has been a large body of scientific studies on this and, up to date, there has been no credible evidence on this point.
Fourthly, even in the United Kingdom, there have been instances where the death penalty was imposed on persons who were subsequently found innocent of the crimes. Given the imperfections of our system, it would be a terrible mistake to implement so severely a penalty in these circumstances.
So, for these reasons, I would record our opposition to this measure and urge that the Government and the Opposition have an opportunity to debate fully this important proposal with regard to the administration of justice.”
In addition to Dr. Tiruchelvam’s compelling points in opposition to the death penalty, it is worth noting that the re-introduction and enforcement of the death penalty by the Sirisena government creates a dangerous precedent which successive administrations, like the rightwing nationalist political party the Sri Lanka Podujana Peraumna (SLPP), if they come into power in the 2020 elections, may seek to further expand. It is also worth noting that Sirisena’s intended use of the death penalty for drug-related offences is a direct violation of international law which, as pointed out by Amnesty International, “says the death penalty can only be imposed in countries that are yet to abolish it for the most serious crimes, meaning intentional killing– and would brazenly defy Sri Lanka’s international commitments, including its repeated votes in favour of a moratorium on the implementation of the death penalty at the UN General Assembly, including most recently in 2016.”
The Sirisena government must be cognizant of the repercussions that the enforcement and reintroduction of the death penalty will have on the people of Sri Lanka for decades to come.