Human Rights

Amnesty skews execution statistics

I was shocked, to say the least. I’ve been doing a lot of work recently campaigning around the issues of executions in Iran and Saudi Arabia of gays, women, secularists and others. The BBC reports that according to Amnesty International, 180 people have been executed in these two countries in the last year. Shocking, right?

Well, not as shocking as this: 80% of executions worldwide were carried out by one country: China. That’s right, folks. Over 1700 people were executed in China alone last year. Naturally, the moral relativists among us – like a certain Mr Livingstone, who compared the Tiananmen Square massacre to the Trafalgar Square poll tax riot – might want to point out that Britain hanged thirteen 17-19 year olds for murder between 1868 and 1899.

The USA also figures in there – responsible for 60 executions. Indeed, Amnesty dramatically – and I’d venture dishonestly – declares in the executive summary of their report:

– at least 2,148 people were executed in 22 countries
– 94% of them were killed in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the USA

What this type of reporting does, is ‘spread the load’ in the casual reader’s mind. But let’s break this down sensibly.

Firstly, as is noted, China was responsible for 80% of this figure. That leaves Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US responsible for the remaining 14%.

But dig deeper, and you discover that even of this 14%, the US contributed the least, 60 people compared to Iran’s 94 and Saudi Arabia’s 86.

Quibbling over nothing, you might be thinking… but what does this mean in per-capita terms?

The US population is almost 300 000 000.

In contrast, Iran’s population is 69 500 000 and Saudi Arabia’s a mere, 24 500 000.

That’s right. Their combined population is less than a third of the United States, but their execution rate is THREE TIMES HIGHER!

Now, China, of course (apparently the worst offender) is 4 times bigger than the US. So at the US rate, they would have executed about 250 people – not almost 1800!!

So, let’s level the playing field here and compare the PER CAPITA execution statistics.

According to my spreadsheet, the executions per capita are:
China: 0.000134514
Iran: 0.000135223
Saudi: 0.000349978
USA: “E” – Too infinitesimal for MS Excel to calculate.

So, let’s give Excel some help. Let’s remove the last “000” from the population figures so we can get a result:

China: 0.13
Iran: 0.13
Saudi: 0.35
USA: 0.02

This gives a different picture doesn’t it? In per capita terms, not only does the US figure remain comparatively insignificant, it shows that Iran and China are about the same and Saudi Arabia is actually the worst offender by a factor of three!

For every person executed in the US, Saudi Arabia is executing 18, and Iran and China are executing 7 each.

But there’s another note-worthy point. In the US, only first-degree murderers are executed, and only then after appeals and judicial reviews sometimes lasting over a decade. Unlike the other countries, people are not executed for political or ‘moral’ crimes. People are not executed in the US for disagreeing with the government or for being “unchaste” or renouncing their religion.

Also, a quarter of US states have dropped the death penalty, and there is a vocal and well-resourced anti-death penalty lobby in the US which goes about its business, with access to the media and celebrity endorsements, but most importantly, without the fear of death itself!

So why, one has to ask, is Amnesty dishonestly including the US in their headline-grabbing statistic at all? Could it be there is growing cachet in this dubious moral relativism? We can’t be seen to be condemning gross human rights violations anywhere without having a dig at the US too?

Indeed, the dishonesty is such that on a per-capita basis they don’t mention that with a population of only 22 million, North Korea outstrips the US by far… as does Jordan and Libya, and even the tiny Palestinian Authority (pop: 3.7m) has a higher execution rate than the US. But they’re not included in the statistic. And these are just a few examples. It is likely – though Amnesty doesn’t give the data – that many of the other 18 countries mentioned in the Amnesty report that make up the remaining 6% of executions also have a higher per capita rate of executions than the US.

It would be more statistically honest to say that 92% of the world’s executions come from THREE countries (removing the US barely changes the stats!). It would be honest because on a per capita basis, Iran and Saudi Arabia are comparable with China (the Saudis in fact are far worse in these terms).

I must make it perfectly clear that my gripe is NOT with Amnesty International’s opposition to the death penalty. I myself am opposed to capital punishment. I condemn all executions, including the 60 that took place in the USA.

BUT… I loathe the knee-jerk moral relativism. Yes, Amnesty must campaign against the death penalty in the US, but lumping the US with China, Iran and Saudi Arabia is simply wrong, and transparently plays down the crimes of the other three countries. Why are they so afraid to condemn unequivocally without the de rigueur America-bashing to soften the blow?

Now I’m sure that Amnesty’s strategists are thinking that the US, being essentially a liberal democracy, might be embarrassed into doing something about the death penalty in those states that still retain it.

They are quite rightly concerned that 1 or 2 people on average is executed every year in the US states that retain the death penalty – even if it is only for first-degree murder. It should be zero. They are particularly right to be concerned when some of those executed might not have been mentally competent to stand trial or understand their sentence.

Perhaps Amnesty feels that the US Government will be shocked into action when it sees its name alongside China, Saudi Arabia and Iran on the list of worst offenders. But if this is the strategy, it isn’t a very effective one. As I have shown, the fallacy is so easily exposed and demolished by anyone with a rudimentary understanding of arithmetic.

The other thing that risks being demolished as a consequence – tragically – is Amnesty International’s own moral authority and credibility. The average American – and indeed the average person that has visited America or has American friends – knows very well that the US is neither Iran nor North Korea. Political dissidents aren’t put before a firing squad, and adulterers are not stoned in the streets.

Amnesty might be making a valiant rhetorical point. The US should know better. It should be more humane – even if those it executes are exclusively violent murderers. But this point can’t be made effectively by ‘cooking the books’. The ends are laudable, but the means are counter-productive. Moral relativism, whether misguided or deliberately manipulative, helps no one – least of all the suffering and the oppressed.

Ask yourself, how many asylum seekers have been sent back to their countries to face torture and death because the adjudicators in their cases have bought into the rhetoric “Iran is no worse than America… Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Jordan, China… they’re really not much worse than America.”

It reminds me of the time I was told by a speaker at an LGBT student conference I also spoke at, that the hangings of gay Iranians were bad, but we should not forget Matthew Shepard. Yes, Matthew Shepard, whose murder outraged the nation, whose killers were swiftly brought to justice, whose parent’s own intervention spared his murderers the death penalty… in America. But it’s the same as teens hanged the street by Revolutionary Guards in Iran. Yes…. I can see it…. no… no, actually I can’t… because I’m NOT INSANE! But I digress…

The good news, of course is:
The European Union – population: 450 000 000; Executions: 0.