If Lethal Dictators Ban the Death Penalty, Who Cares?

For years now, the death penalty has been held up as a marker of enlightenment, distinguishing the cultivated states that ban it from the brutish ones that still administer it. By this measure, the world is becoming a much more righteous place, with 135 of 197 nations now in the cultivated camp, up from 105 a decade ago when pillars of Western civilization like Canada and Britain still employed the death penalty. More surprising members are banning the punishment every month: the latest converts include Albania, Rwanda and Uzbekistan—and none of them was previously known as a paragon of respect for individual life. Now they have been saluted by human-rights groups like Amnesty International and the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center for discarding the ultimate tool of official retribution.

But the longer this list becomes, the more dubious is its use as a yardstick of societal advancement. Rwanda has come a long way since the genocide that took 800,000 lives in the 1990s, yet extrajudicial killings by government security forces increased in 2007, according to the U.S. State Department. Uzbekistan is still run by a Communist-era dictator known in the past for boiling opponents alive and whose troops mowed down more than a hundred antigovernment protesters in the city of Andizhan just three years ago. Angola ended capital punishment in 1992, but its military and police have been accused of unlawful killings. Colombia, Mexico and Cambodia all have potentially lethal judicial systems with no official death penalty.

This is not to say that groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are fooled by official bans. Many of the nations cited above also rank high on lists of the world's worst human-rights offenders, which are kept by these same watchdog groups. Still, eliminating the death penalty may often be a government ruse to distract critics and gain favor, normal relations and aid from international institutions like the European Union, which has eased sanctions against Uzbekistan imposed in the wake of Andizhan. In other cases, such as El Salvador in 1983, it may have signified a sincere gesture from governments that were nonetheless powerless to enforce it on rogue Army or police elements.

The less reliable the list becomes, the less useful it is as a tool to embarrass the developed nations that are not in it. Among the major democracies, only the United States, Japan and India have carried out executions since 2000. None of these national governments are actively reconsidering, perhaps in part because they would gain no tangible reward from the international community beyond an exasperated "finally!" That's a shame because the growing anti-death-penalty club does reflect an increasingly clear expert consensus that the death penalty serves no reasonable purpose of justice or deterrence. Only state-sponsored revenge.