Jonathan Trembley: Mongolia Revokes the Death Penalty: A Relevant History of Capital Punishment

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jonathan Tremblay is a Historian and Breaking News Editor for the History News Network]

Stating “The majority of the world’s countries have chosen to abolish the death penalty. We should follow this path”, Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj has refused to sign any further orders to execute the country’s inmates. He is in full constitutional right to impose a moratorium on the measure but it will be up to the parliament in Ulaan Bator to pass a complete ban on capital punishment or rather to continue offering the punishment for their most serious crimes. This will bring us to 96 countries that have abolished the penalty, excluding of course the four most populous nations on earth: Indonesia, the United States, India and China.

As we cross over into a new decade, we must review the historical reasons why most of the planet still had the legal execution of its most incurable criminals but a short century ago and if the measure is still relevant, desirable and affordable in the world of today. But first, you may denote a clear bias on my part as a pro-abolitionist of the death penalty but I should say that this view has not impeded an impartial research on my part. Indeed, I have always been against the death penalty not on the grounds that it is barbaric or useless but on the more practical grounds that it is decided and applied by humans, flawed, error-prone and imperfect humans. And finally, this is not a discussion of ethics. I believe in democracy above all else and, indeed, four separate international polls in the last five years have confirmed that approximately 55% of those consulted were for the death penalty, so there’s that.

Historically, trivially administered death penalties were the norm in the monarchies and empires of Antiquity. The very first “Code” at least establishing impartial criteria for such a penalty was the law edict of King Hammurabi of Babylon around 1790 BC. A few short centuries later, the Bible’s first five Books (Torah or Pentateuch) also seemed to support the legal execution of criminals with the famed “Eye for an eye” doctrine.

Further along, the logic that an infallible and ultimately impartial human even existed began to be questioned. Already in the Bible’s New Testament, Jesus reversed the “Eye for an eye” and instead, gave us the equally known “Turn the other cheek”. Later in medieval times, the Thousand and one Nights voiced an opposition to the death penalty, Tang Dynasty China outlawed the punishment and XIIth-century lawyer Moses Maimonides said “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death”. That being said, The Muslim World maintained an important amount of criminal executions (much like today), China reinstated the measure after 15 years (759 AD) and, as we’ve seen earlier, a majority of national populations continued to support the legal killing of accused suspects.

It was only in the XIXth century, with the birth of the Nation, the spread of democracy and the slow dusk of world empires that support for capital punishment began to wane. The State of Michigan did away with it in 1849 but to this day, only 15 of the 50 States have done so. Similarly, regional abolition of capital punishment was as far as it went for a long time. Finally in the XXth century, decolonization, global mediatization and the advent of new forensic and investigative technologies have convinced most countries to opt out of the execution measure. In fact, the United Nations now encourage abolition and the European Union has it as a requirement for joining the organization. Mongolia is simply the most recent in a long line of nations crossing over to the realization that condemning a man to death and carrying out the execution in a democratic state is indeed putting the gun/button/switch in the hands of every elector which that government represents. Not everyone may be comfortable with the prospect of one day irrefutably executing an innocent man by accident.

President Elbegdorj said that “The road a democratic Mongolia has to take ought to be clean and bloodless” and has suggested that all men on death row should simply have their sentence commuted to a 30-year prison stay (rather than the common Mongolian method of execution: a bullet to the back of the head). Many have applauded the initiative but this decision actually evokes quite a historical irony. The land of Genghis Khan and of the Mongolian Hordes has now chosen to do away with the death penalty as something that is backwards, dangerous and simply not what a modern country can afford to do in the XXIst century. There are some more “developed”, industrialized and democratically seasoned nations that should take note and reflect.

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