Friday, April 21, 2006

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.


At 9:11 pm, Blogger David M. McClory said...

Way more elaborate than needed, sir.

Free Elections

The Rule of Law

A Constitution

Ability to tel AI to go shoot themselves...

(you fill in the blank!)

At 9:12 pm, Blogger David M. McClory said...

Way more elaborate than needed, sir.

Free Elections

The Rule of Law

A Constitution

Ability to tel AI to go shoot themselves...

(you fill in the blank!)

At 10:53 am, Anonymous Richard Farnos said...

So let me get this clear. A nation is not to be judge by the 'crude' numbers of a morally questionable acts it commits, but ratio of these acts to its population. So the USA is only 23% as bad as China etc because it 'only' kills 3 out 10,000 citizens as opposed to 13 out 10,000.

Pray tell, Dear Brett, does this statistical morality apply to genocide? If so then it suggests is that Rwanda was twelve times worst than the Holocaust!? Afterall the million murdered in Rwanda representated about a quarter of the population where as the 6 million murdered by the Nazis was 'only' 2% of the population of occupied Europe.

To be honest, I can not see how such numerical jiggery-pokery has anything useful to contribute to either subject. Ironically it seems to me to a particularly vulgar bit of moral relativism of the worst kind.

Whether you like it not the USA shares the same policy with China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and no amount of white-wash is going to alter that fact. Surely the issue to addressed is why such a diverse range of civilisations have such similiar policies and what can be done to change it.

All the best

At 11:13 am, Blogger Brett Lock said...

Ah, welcome back Mr Farnos. I've missed my daily dose of absurdity. You're a veritible Savador Dali of ligic.

Yes, Richard, it is entirely morally equivalent to execute only a small percentage of first degree murders after due process, jury trials and years of appeals as it is to execute a high percentage of citizens for 'political' and 'moral' crimes - NOT!

Even the man convicted of conspiring with the bomber/hijackers responsible for thousands of deaths in the World Trade Centre attrocity escapes the death penalty in the US, but in Richard 'Follow the Yellow Brick Road' Farnos land, the US is just as bad as a country that executes teenage girls for flirting and trade unionists for opening their mouths.

I'm opposed to the death penalty. I'm also I'm opposed to robbery. But saying that a kid shoplifting a Mars Bar isn't remotely comparrible to an armed gang with sawn-off shotguns holding up an off-license is not to excuse criminality. It's about 'perspective'.

At 4:12 pm, Anonymous richard farnos said...

Who’s defending the Iranian regime? Certainly not me, Amnesty International or quite frankly anyone else I can think of. The only person who is creating a dichotomy is you, Brett. How does criticising USA let Iran, China etc off? Why is not possible to condemn both Iran and the USA? Why do you always see things in terms of ‘sides’?

Moreover It not me or Amnesty that engaging in questionable moral relativism but yourself, both through your number games and by your suggestion that is less immoral to kill a “first degree murders” than “citizens for 'political' and 'moral' crimes”. Can’t you see that trying to make a quantitative difference between these deaths buys into the very idea that we both oppose – that people are expendable, and some people more expendable that others. Lets put it another way. How many first degree murders need to execute to equal the moral outrage of a state killing one flirting teenage girl? A sick question, for sure, but its logical extension of your argument.

This inability to draw the distinction of between qualitative and quantitative differences is evident by your seeming inability to appreciate the work of Salvador Dali, and you silly comparison between shop-lifting and armed robbery. Dali work is not a literal representation of the world but the exploration of the human subconscious on Freudian principles. Far from being illogical as you suggest his work his highly constructed composition that careful draws upon Freudian iconography. While I would disagree with his Freudian beliefs, and do not share his heteronormative, and sexism assumptions or dodgy politics Dali was rational and a genius – and with these qualification I can only take being compared to him as a compliment. Thank you Brett.

So finally to your silly comparison. There is a qualitative difference between shop lifting and armed robbery. Armed robbery inherently involves threats of physical violence, if not actual physical violence, and it always involves psychological violence. This not the case with shop lifting, it does not require physical or psychological violence. There is by contrast no qualitative deference between state murder whether it be in Iran or USA, both inherently involve physical and psychological violence, only the range of their victims differ.

All the best

At 4:39 pm, Blogger Brett Lock said...

Richard, you answered your own question. If there are extranious factors (such as threat of violence) between nicking a Mars Bar and armed robbery, then there are exactly the same qualitive differences between executing a girl for flirting or a student for protesting and executing a multiple murderer.

The first category is designed to proect the State and the second, however misguidedly, is designed to protect the people.

Can you not see the qualititive difference between executing someone who has harmed innocent people and destroyed the lives of others (both victims and survivors) and the use of execution to supress political dissent or enforce repressive social codes?

Can you not see the differnce between a society motivated by protecting itself from violent criminals under the rule of law; and a regime using oppressive and arbitrary force against its own citizens to protect its power?

The reason why Amnesty should make the distinction is because it devalues the currency. If - for the same of argument - you only had enough resources to save one person from execution, which would it be: the girl who flirted or the guy who butchered the Korean family in a robbery?

Or perhaps it doesn't matter? Would you toss a coin?

At 7:59 pm, Anonymous richard farnos said...

O Brett, you are on very dodgy ground here. The determining factor is surely the act not the spin. Whether it is to supposedly protect the state or people, the US or Iran are systematically killing their citizens.

Far from Amnesty devaluing the currency of human life, you are. In effect you are advocating is extreme form of moral relativism. You are saying that the life of a multiply murder worth less than flirting teenager or protesting student. This is a dangerous and illiberal slippery slop. What next? Paedophiles and rapists…. Such slippage has already happened in the States. The prosecution bid for the death penalty for Moussaoui wasn’t for anything he had done (he was already in jail when the 9/11 attacks occurred) but what he hadn’t done i.e. not informing the authorities of the impending attacks. Indeed this sloppiness towards human rights all to prevalent in the action of US authorities which systemically uses torture, runs Guantanamo bay gulag and instigated the massacre of civilians in Fallujah, including teenage girls, flirting or otherwise.

Brett no one is suggesting that appalling acts undertaken by Iran should not be exposed, condemned and if possibly stopped. All I am suggesting is that you apply the same moral standard to the US.

Finally with regard to the ‘resource’ issue, this is a red herring. Evidently Amnesty feels it has the resources to protest against all form capital punishment. But, for the sake or argument, say there was a resource issue. I would suggest that it would be a bit dodgy to make your priorities on how much you like or dislike the victims. Rather wouldn’t it best to priorities on where our actions are most likely to save lives…. Err and wouldn’t that be more likely to be our supposed best ally, the US, rather than Iran, Saudi Arabia or China?

At 8:33 pm, Blogger Brett Lock said...

Richard. The life of a mass murderer IS worth less than a that of an innocent teenager. That is not moral relativism. Moral relativism is that which seeks to EQUATE the life of a mass murderer who is executed after a decade of appeals and after exhuasitive due process has established his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, with summary executions following shadowy trials on some spurious notion of having upset the government or offended some theocrat's sense of morality.

What is being done in the US is NOT the moral standard of what happens in Iran. It is YOU that is not applying the same moral standard.

Perhaps you will equate the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela to Ian Huntley next?

At 10:48 pm, Anonymous richard farnos said...

Well, Brett, we begining to repeat ourselves. As I pointed out before, by allowing yourself to engage in debate into the relative merits of one individual life over another, you enter a morally dangerous zone. You give credence to those who thing that OK for the state to play God and decide who lives and who dies.

I also note that you seem to have a very touching if somewhat niave belief in the American justice system. Perhaps you would like to explain why Black poor men are hugely over represented on death row, and why they are less likely to win a appeal. Are the lives poor Black murderers really less available than rich white murderers?

Brett like I said I see no value in trying to create a league table of hate. Why the need to dictonomisation? Surely we want the end of capital punishment in both the States and Iran.

All the best

At 11:01 am, Blogger Brett Lock said...

Yes, Richard these are all good reasons why I'm opposed to the death penalty, but I'm still not going to accept - nor, I suspect does any reasonable person - that execution as a form of widespread state repression is the same as execution reserved only for the worst crimes after legnthy due process in a country where the rights and wrongs are openly debated in safety.

It allows pro death penalty Americans to write off the anti death penalty camapigners as loons and worse, allows the tyrants to say 'hey, we're no worse than America'.

The arguments against the death penalty in the US, both procesural and moral, are completely diffent as those applicable to China or Saudi Arabia. To conflate the two is a diservice to the fight against the death penalty.

At 11:14 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brett, I see your point of view and am going to have to agree with you here. American bashing HAS been in vogue of late. I come from Pakistan, and while we may have officially executed fewer people, our population is lower than the US': essentially, we execute as many people per capita as the US does (not very many). But Amnesty International doesn't mention us.

While I respect Farnos' well thought out argument, I cannot agree with his extreme rejection of quantity as a valid factor. You are correct, sir, in many respects, including the racism on death row. However, I myself hold a utilitarian world view, and thus cannot accept that wronging one person and wronging a hundred are equally bad acts. This is more a Kantian view.

Brett, opposing the death penalty in the US is a very good idea, particularly considering the extreme inefficiency in terms of court time and money (even in Texas, the average wait on death row is 10+ years and it costs more than 3X as much to execute a convict as it would to put him in a max security cell for 40 years.) and it even fails as a deterrent.

However, I must agree that the US' use of the death penalty, whilst perhaps immoral (old abolitionism) or inefficient (new abolitionism)simply does not compare to the death penalty in states which have a review period of a week.

At 4:25 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Lock

Why not take Texas as a country. In 2006 26 people were executed in Texas. It's population is 23 million. That brings it to about .113, not far behind Iran.....

At 3:18 pm, Blogger Karl-Olav said...

What about the fact that the moral standard set for countries like the US are way beyond any statistical scale? Any execution in the us shocks the general population many times more than it does when it happens in non-western countries.


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