How to Persuade to Give Up Death Penalty? Activists’ Strategy Against Capital Punishment

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for

The goal of the abolition or moratorium of the death penalty represents a key aspiration of human rights activism with a long record. Despite such prolonged history, the fight against death penalty managed to have a concrete impact only through the mobilization of the last 20 years in which an intensified activism in the form of the campaign for the moratorium led, among other factors, to the final UN resolution in 2007. On the one hand, previous mobilization have for sure contributed to create the right overall political context in which the campaign developed. On the other hand, however, we need to give credit to the specific campaign for the moratorium for its significant institutional impact in terms of both a UN resolutions and numerous states abandoning the retentionist positions. In themselves, the resolution and the changed attitude of so many countries alone is an extremely remarkable achievement in international affairs if we just consider that almost all major powers, including USA, China, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran (and at beginning also Russia) are retentionist countries, thus able to exert pressure and impose costs on the abolitionist camp. At the national level, the trend towards abolition has been evident. Before 1950 only 8 States could be described as totally abolitionist. Today the figure is 96. How was this success achieved?

Between pressure (hard dynamics) or persuasion (soft socialization), it is clear that the main strategic approach of this campaign against the death penalty consisted in lobbying local, national, European, and world public institutions for soft persuasion. In terms of target, the campaigning aimed principally at influencing public institutions given their centrality in the verdict on capital punishment.

Two elements were crucial for enacting the process of normative persuasion at the bases of the change that led to the final voting. On the one hand, the construction of a cosmopolitan frame mainly based on universal human rights was important for challenging from a legal point of view the traditional understanding of the death penalty in terms of sovereignty. On the other, the “humanitarian missions” led by civil society organizations in swing countries together with the public initiatives held in abolitionist countries were crucial for actually making national retentionist veto-players changing their position in favor of the moratorium.

The first strategic dimension of the campaign was the framing of the issue at stake. Underpinning the lobbying activity was the specific public understanding of the death penalty that the campaign constructed. Given that here lobbying has been implemented mainly as persuasion rather than pressure, the ideational component turned out to be of utter importance. The issue of death penalty was framed essentially in line with a straightforward universalistic understanding of human rights, at times integrated with either a religious or a fallibility component. The right to life was presented as an inalienable right, a fundamental entitlement of human being that cannot be expropriated by the state. The capital execution was thus presented not only as an evil, but as a infringement of a fundamental human rights which by definition must not be tramped.

In addition, this cosmopolitan framing was at times integrated also by both a religious framing based on the claim about the unavailability of human life conceived as a gift of God, and an innocence framing pointing to the imperfections of the system which may lead to irreversible miscarriages. These two additional frames were very important because they facilitated the second, emotional component of the dynamic of persuasion by appealing to either God’s will or a dramatic circumstance in which anybody could unwillingly happen to be.

In the opposite camp, the retentionist countries fought back and developed a specific counter-frame to resist the attempt by the campaign to present an innovative understanding of the issue of the death penalty. While being very different in political nature, henceforth unable to create a formalized coalition, the outliers managed anyway to put forward a strong resistance. Countries opposing the moratorium, and a fortiori the abolition, which mostly concentrated in Asia and the Middle East, appealed to arguments related to a) national sovereignty and state’s prerogatives, especially understood as a barrier against a certain kind of “benevolent” western neo-imperialism (this latter argument more used by countries in the south); b) country’s specificities, including reasons of national security; c) religious reasons; and d) relevance of national public opinion and ultimately democratic support for the death penalty (argument more frequently used by the USA).

The normative battle between the pro-moratoria and pro-death penalty frames was fought in different political fora including the UN General Assembly, but the most important locus of dialectical challenge was at the UN Council of Human Rights. It is there that most of the framing and counter-framing clashes took place, ultimately in favor of the pro-moratorium.

The second strategic dimension of the campaign for what concerns the dynamic of persuasion refers to the so-called “humanitarian diplomacy”, a term coined by the activists themselves to stress the role, be it direct and indirect, that civil society organizations played in convincing swing countries to vote in favor of the moratorium (and, sub-optimally, those countries that abstained in the past to keep abstaining). It is worth noticing that these kinds of missions were organized disjunctively by single components of the campaign rather than as a collective enterprise: Each civil society organization, depending crucially on its local contacts, set up a specific mission. Particularly impressive in this regard was to shift of Rwanda that proved that even after highly dramatic events the pro-moratorium choice was possible.

These “persuasion activities” were key for enlarging the pro-moratorium front. It is through this kind of “parallel diplomacy”, in fact, that civil society organizations were able to contribute to a process of normative change in those countries that were de facto abolitionist and later shifted to the pro-moratorium position. In this regard, persuasion of key veto-players part of the national decision-making process, such as for instance Ministers of Justice, was achieved not only thanks to the convincing force of the goals in themselves as presented within the aforementioned cosmopolitan frame, but also through an emotional process. An important moment in these activities was the testimony by former sentenced to death or by their relatives. The personal telling of specific, exemplar stories about the drama of death penalty as experienced in first person proved often decisive.

Such persuasion ability depended also to a large extent on the political ability of civil society organizations to become a reliable counterpart, an honest broker able to gain trust of local governments and societies. In opposition to the strategy often deployed by civil society organizations to “name and shame”, in this campaign the winning approach was based altogether on a non-demonizing, respectful attitude: only by refusing a Manichean view according to which retentionist countries are associated with incivility were the civil society organizations able to engage in serious discussion with those countries. In this activity, civil society organizations were particularly qualified insofar as they were credible: they gained their legitimacy on the ground through previous. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that most of the persuasive activities of the campaign were possible also thanks to the synergy with public institutions which provided financial, political or procedural support.

Beyond the persuasion mechanisms explored above, a number of elements proved contributing factors to the final success of the campaign. First of all, an element that significantly contributed to the success of the campaign was the skillful balancing by the activists of the local and international/transnational dimension. Without local roots, transitional mobilization struggle to achieve sustainability and strength. Even more in this specific case, without local institutional support would have been very difficult to enter the intergovernmental game of the EU and UN institutions. And yet, on the opposite, without transnational coalition-building providing best practice exchange and political support, local mobilization can fade away or be repressed by local governments. The campaign for the moratorium of the death penalty provides a clear case of good balancing between the local and the international/transnational political dynamics, of a positive back and forth multilevel dynamic between national, European, and global politics.

A second success factor of the campaign that should be noticed is the ability to venue shift of the lobbying activity. The campaign managed to progress, or just not to derail after relative failure, mostly thanks to the skillfulness of the civil society organizations involved who continuously moved their lobbying target from national governments to regional organizations and international organizations, depending on which institution was at any specific time more inclined to be “persuaded”. The most evident case is the oscillation between the UN General Assembly in New York and the UN Commission on Human Rights in Genève. The campaign first tried in New York, but after a first failure there it decided to move its attention to the less politicized avenue of the Commission on Human Rights where they actually managed to have a highly significant impact on the agenda setting by moving the issue of the death penalty into the realm of the human right agenda.

On the overall, the process of norm diffusion that this campaign exemplifies is remarkable. The initial context was very unfavorable. Almost all great powers were and still are in favor of death penalty. And yet, through a slow process of soft persuasion, the campaign contributed significantly to convince a great number of countries to accept the pro-moratorium position. Of course, there are additional international and country specific reasons that needs to be taken into account for explaining fully why states changed their preferences. A permissive international context, focusing events, low costs, are all factors that should be taken into consideration and integrated with the overall persuasion-based account that have been presented here for developing a complete reconstruction of the causal chain at stake. What this article wants to suggest is that the persuasion process is a very important component (but not the only one) for explaining the shift to the pro-moratorium position. In this sense, for instance, it is striking that no country was convinced by the prospect of public incentives in the form of direct material rewards. On the contrary, we can expect that the pro-moratorium position, being directly in contrast to the stance of major powers in the international system, or indeed in contrast with the position of neighbor countries (this is for instance the case of Tunisia, the first MENA country to vote for the moratorium), is most likely to damage the countries that take it, and yet that position was indeed taken. This analysis indicates that the action of civil society organizations were crucial for the success of the norm diffusion. While it is undeniable that the end result could not have been achieved without the cooperative synergy with public institutions at different levels, it is equally indisputable that without the civil society mobilization there would have not been either a UN resolution on the moratorium of the death penalty or a steady increase in legal changes at the national level in so many countries. Civil society organizations filled a vacuum, an empty space that politics was not willing, able or simply interested in filling.

In conclusion, two principal dimensions of the campaign should be highlighted for assessing its political significance: micro and macro. In the micro dimension, i.e. internal to the specific dynamics of the norms on death penalty, the voting of the moratorium at the UN can perhaps signal a turning point (sort of tipping point) beyond which a new normative interpretation of international life is recognized as legitimate. From here, the norm would be progressively accepted by the whole international community in a process of normative cascade. A case of such trickledown effect can for instance be noticed in the case of the African Commission. In 2008 just weeks after the UN voting, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has adopted a resolution calling on African States to observe a moratorium on the death penalty towards making the African Union (AU) a totally death penalty-free zone. According to many activists involved in the campaign, the success of the mobilization suggests that the issue of the death penalty has by now became a stable item in the global agenda, a soon would-be standard of world civility. In this line, it is not any more a matter of “if”, but rather of “when” it will be completely accepted by all members of the international community. If we assume as the campaign does that soon the death penalty will be regarded as no less inacceptable as the slavery, torture, or racial segregation by the international community, the most salient question becomes the following: which country wants to be the last one to abolish the death penalty? In its macro dimension, i.e. in its overall sense of being a battle for human rights, the campaign must be seen as part of a more complex and longer process of recognition of human rights as universal entitlements superordinate to state sovereignty. In this vein, the campaign for the moratorium of the death penalty can be read as a cosmopolitan mobilization tout court: A component of the “normative battle” to affirm of the importance of human life regardless of any other individual characteristics. As such, it is also one of those non-predetermined, but also never-ending battles that characterize international affairs.