Human rights advocates discuss capital punishment in China at Gelatt Dialogue

February 6, 2007

The NYU School of Law and the Council on Foreign Relations invite human rights advocates to the 12th Annual Timothy Gelatt Memorial Dialogue on Law and Democracy in Asia.

In 1980, the U.S. and its allies made good on a threat to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and refused to withdraw. The powerful message from the world to the U.S.S.R.—along with other acts that further isolated the communist regime—was eventually heeded, as President Mikhail Gorbachev pulled military forces beginning in 1988.

Demanding a boycott for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing was one tactic for persuading China to reveal the extent of, and eventually reform, its capital punishment practice that a variety of human rights lawyers and advocates mentioned in “Perspectives on China’s Efforts to Curb the Death Penalty,” the 12th Annual Timothy Gelatt Memorial Dialogue on Law and Democracy in Asia, sponsored by the Law School and the Council on Foreign Relations. China remains one of 73 countries with the death penalty and is believed to be one of the farthest from changing because of its lack of transparency. The Chinese government doesn’t report even ballpark statistics on convictions and executions, said the event’s moderator, Professor Jerome Cohen, who estimated that executions could be as high as 10,000 per year in China and that in light of the nation’s willingness to address other human rights issues, its lack of transparency in capital punishment is inconsistent. “It’s ridiculous that the regime won’t reveal these figures,” Cohen remarked.

Focusing more on tactics to compel China to reform, Daniel Ping Yu, a senior research fellow at the Law School, discussed procedural reform. Since 2006, China has enacted sweeping reforms to trial and appellate procedures, making some believe these might be signals of momentum toward eventual abolition of capital punishment. China’s complicated legal system puts defendants at a severe disadvantage. They are not guaranteed representation, often misunderstand the trial process and are intimidated by the idea of opposing an outsized regime. To help combat the David-and-Goliath-like “inequality of arms,” as prominent Chinese lawyer Mo Shaoping termed it, a series of reforms to substantive law would benefit those facing a potential death sentence.

Shi Yan’an, a Hauser Global Scholar, remarked that establishing more rigorous standards for using the capital punishment, and more flexible suspensions of sentences as well as removing less serious crimes that currently warrant the death penalty, such as corruption and robbery, are steps in the right direction. Good benchmarks, in Shi’s opinion, would be that murder remains the only crime punishable by death, with total abolition by 2050.

Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, endorsed the idea of tying capital punishment closely to human rights, an area where China has made astonishing progress. Over the past few years, China has demonstrated a high level of sophistication in addressing human rights, said Hom. The nation has signed most international human rights treaties put before it, and participates in dialogues concerning human rights topics. “While we are all being sensitive, saying, ‘Let’s not talk human rights to the Chinese,” the Chinese are talking human rights,” she said. Since the Chinese government has made an effort to curb these violations, Hom is hopeful that the trend might eventually expand to include capital punishment.

A word of caution came from Robin Maher, director of the ABA’s Death Penalty Representation project. She felt that deeper corruption in China’s party system might be to blame. “The death penalty is always political and that makes it vulnerable to abuse,” she said.

Human rights advocates have some cause to be optimistic about progress that has already occurred in China through education, however. An ambitious cross-venture between the ABA and NYU has produced a series of death penalty reform programs. Research Fellow Margaret Lewis described some of the procedural safeguards the program has promoted. Experts from the Innocence Project and other death penalty reform activists have educated Chinese judges in the importance of such things as DNA evidence.

Brave first steps like these, say Lewis, may eventually produce long-term results. Quoting the late communist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, Lewis said, “Cross the river by feeling each stone.”

By Graham M. Reed