- The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective
Perhaps no single issue better illustrates progress in the protection and promotion of human rights than the progressive limitation and abolition of capital punishment. Unlike so many norms, where assessments are vulnerable to much subjectivity and are not prone to quantitative measurement (is there less torture? is there less racial discrimination? are trials fairer?), the death penalty can be readily examined using simple statistics. Thus, while only a handful of the sixty-odd states in the world had abolished capital punishment at the time the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in December 1948, sixty years later approximately two-thirds of the nearly 200 countries that exist today have put this barbaric practice behind them. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the pace of abolition has been a fairly constant two to three states per year, with virtually no backsliding. If these trends continue, we can look forward to universal abolition by about the year 2030.
How fitting, then, that the most recent edition of The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspectiveshould appear literally weeks after the adoption of a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly, asking states to “progressively restrict the use of the death penalty and reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed.” The resolution called for a moratorium on capital punishment with a view to its subsequent abolition. Twice before, in 1994 and 1999, European states had attempted but failed at such an initiative, even at a time when already a majority of United Nations members had abandoned the practice. By 2007, things had reached a tipping point, when it became clear that within the General Assembly there was now a clear majority on the subject. In the end, the vote wasn’t even close, with 104 voting in favor to 54 against. Diplomats who campaigned in favor of the resolution in the General Assembly in October and November 2007 kept well-thumbed copies of the third edition of this book at their sides.
It has been two decades since Roger Hood was initially requested by the United Nations to prepare a report on capital punishment. Subsequently issued as a monograph by Oxford University Press, his work formed the first edition of this book. Hood’s stocktaking built on the work of two earlier consultants, Marc Ancel and Norville Morris, whose studies were published in the 1960s. His work figured as part of a process within the United Nations, both informing and contributing to the ongoing discussion. Hood’s research has provided a vital benchmark on capital punishment around the globe, facilitating measurement of a number of relevant parameters since that time. But it has also, in its own way, contributed to progressive development as a fundamental text for use by advocates and activists in their campaigns. The study has both debunked myths and half-truths, and it has also inspired those who seek reform in this area. [End Page 537]
Roger Hood is now emeritus professor in criminology at the University of Oxford, as well as an emeritus fellow of All Souls College. He remains extremely active in the discipline, lecturing around the world on this and other topics. For the fourth edition, he has taken on a co-author, Carolyn Hoyle, who is also a distinguished academic at Oxford. Presumably she will take the lead in the fifth, sixth and seventh editions until, with universal abolition, further updates of this book become unnecessary and it loses its interest.
The authors are of course courteous and respectful towards their colleagues, but they observe that many have sometimes shown unwarranted pessimism. They point to the distinguished German criminologist, Günther Kaiser, who wrote in 1986 that there was “little hope that international bodies” could succeed in initiatives on the death penalty. Another great specialist, Leon Radzinowicz, felt that by 1999 an abolitionist plateau had been reached, and that virtually all countries likely to abolish capital punishment had already done so. Both could not have been more...