“The voice of the universities must be heard in the fight against the death penalty,” says Rector Ole Petter Ottersen. All the Norwegian universities are now part of the University of Oslo’s network against the death penalty.
Universities against Death Penalty aims to be a global network of universities that use their voice and their symbolic power in the work against capital punishment.
The Rector of the University of Oslo has taken the initiative to form the network along with project manager Lill Scherdin and Professor Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam.
Spearheaded by this group, the UiO is working proactively to enrol other universities in the Nordic countries and the West to the network. They then plan to invite universities from all corners of the world to join. Their influence is needed in the efforts to convince countries that still practise the death penalty that it must be stopped.
“The universities’ moral voice must be heard”
“It’s only in very exceptional cases that universities take a political stance and allow their moral as well as their intellectual voice to be heard, and it’s when issues arise that affect the university’s fundamental values. The fight against the death penalty is one such issue, equivalent to the fight against apartheid and slavery,” the Rector asserts.
Freedom of speech and the academic liberty that is fundamental for universities is also relevant for the fight against the death penalty.
“The death penalty is at variance with the values incorporated in human rights, where the right to life is the most basic of all. Capital punishment is also in opposition to the scientific mindset where we reject absolute certainty. It’s never possible to be a hundred per cent sure – and not in questions of guilt either. The Innocence Project in the USA shows that there are many innocent people on death row. There’s also a large amount of research on capital punishment to indicate that this form of penalty doesn’t have an effect that counter-balances the irrevocable intervention it actually represents.”
Ottersen and Scherdin report that several universities outside Norway have already indicated that they are positive to joining the network.
“Everybody’s voice must be heard”
Lill Scherdin has studied the death penalty for years as a Senior Researcher in the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo. She hopes the network will be able to persuade a “critical mass” of people in countries where capital punishment is still practised to oppose this form of penalty, and that their voices will be so loud and clear that the political leaders of the countries in question will no longer be able to ignore them.
“Research shows that there’s an ambivalent attitude to the death penalty in countries that practise it. Pressure against these countries at the political level doesn’t often reach the people but is warded off by the political leaders. Countries that practise capital punishment have become very good at responding to other countries or to communications from human rights organizations.”
“If we manage to establish a critical mass of people, not consisting mainly of politicians but of individuals from all types of professions, then pressure and influence will also come through channels other than the political.”
Ms Scherdin hopes that the network can thus motivate universities in countries that practise capital punishment to persuade their citizens to take a stance against this form of penalty.
“A critical mass of people who want the death penalty issue to be openly discussed needn’t constitute a majority of the population, but there must be a sufficient number for the opinion they are supporting to be regarded as a legitimate viewpoint represented within various layers and groups of society. The politicians will then be forced to take their views into consideration. And that’s exactly why it’s important for us to support the political fight against the death penalty with initiatives from the universities. The fact that universities publicize their view and are willing to take up discussions on the death penalty contributes to creating such a critical mass,” she maintains.
No support for the death penalty in research
The fight against the death penalty is one of the main priorities of Norway’s human rights policy. Capital punishment is contrary to the concept of the right to life, the dignity of the individual and the principle of humane treatment. Research has never been able to document that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on crime.
On the contrary, extensive research shows that capital punishment has a number of unintended negative effects and costs – for society, for the families involved and for the legal system.
“The practice has few traceable positive effects, and the global community now has an ever-growing understanding of the negative impact the death penalty can have for both individuals and society,” the Rector tells us.
On the right track
“We’ve seen great progress in the work against the death penalty in recent years, and more than 70 per cent of the world’s countries now abstain from using this method of punishment. The number of countries that have abolished capital punishment has increased from 21 in 1970 to 106 in March 2013. In fact only 21 countries carried out executions in 2012. But the forces against abolishing the death penalty are strong, and very many people are executed on a global basis – in horrifying ways.”
Thirty-two states in the USA still practise the death penalty. There are considerable differences among countries with a majority of Muslims in their population: some perform a high number of executions – for example Iran and Saudi Arabia – while others have introduced a moratorium or have abolished capital punishment completely. Prominent Asian countries such as China, India and Japan continue to execute people, and 90 per cent of all executions in the world are carried out in Asia.
Only seven countries have executed ten or more citizens each year in the past decade: China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, the Yemen and the USA.
“It’s our duty to spread information”
Professor and Rector Ole Petter Ottersen emphasizes the universities’ responsibility to spread information in the work against the death penalty. He points out that universities have a duty and a responsibility to communicate what research has to say about the effects of capital punishment.
“It’s obvious that the universities that join the network should inform politicians what research shows about the death penalty and how inappropriate it is as a method of punishment. But we must also set standards based on the fundamental values of the universities and must help to establish norms in the community on major issues. If such norms are assimilated into society, then society can be changed. Universities have played an important role here before. We have a responsibility for making sure that knowledge reaches those who need it and for ensuring that our knowledge is taken into account at the political level. This network is of key importance in this respect.”
The universities that join the network assume no duties other than that of lending their voice and their symbolic power to the work against the death penalty. However, member universities will receive information on the various ways of working against capital punishment in a university context, as well as information on the contributions that other universities, faculties and departments are making to these efforts.