Opinion: My country abolished the death penalty. So can yours

Editor’s Note: Elbegdorj Tsakhia was president of Mongolia from 2009 to 2017. He is commissioner of the International Committee against Death Penalty (ICDP). The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN Opinion here.

A few weeks ago, Singapore elected its new president, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in a landslide election. While it’s a largely ceremonial position (it’s the prime minister who’s the head of government), the president does exercise at least one important power that if used could shake up this Asian nation-state’s identity—and send an important message across the globe:

The power to grant clemency to death row inmates.

Elbegdorj Tsakhia - Courtesy Elbegdorj Tsakhia
Elbegdorj Tsakhia - Courtesy Elbegdorj Tsakhia

It’s a power that can dramatically change the character of a nation and its standing in the world. I should know—it’s a power I used as president of Mongolia.

When I entered office in 2009, I quickly came to realize that use of the death penalty in Mongolia had been arbitrary, secretive and cruel. As was my presidential prerogative, I initially granted pardons to all those scheduled for execution.

Against some resistance, I initiated the legislative process for full abolition, which was finally accomplished in 2016. Mongolia’s signing of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the removal of the death penalty from all relevant national statutes is still one of the proudest moments of my political career.

We were not the only country to move away from the use of capital punishment. By the end of 2022, more than two-thirds of the world’s nations had done away with the practice, according to the Washington, DC-based Death Penalty Information Center. Last year, four countries abolished the death penalty for all crimes, as Amnesty International noted in a recent report: Kazakhstan, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic.

Despite a small number of countries (20) actually completing executions last year, executions are still on the rise in much of the world, due to a few prominent outliers including Iran and Saudi Arabia. As the Amnesty report notes, “Known executions, excluding the thousands believed to have taken place in China, significantly increased by 53% on those for 2021, from 579 (2021) to 883 (2022).”

This is why I have been following Singapore’s frequent use of the death penalty with growing concern. Since resuming executions in March 2022 (following the height of the Covid-19 pandemic), Singapore has executed 16 individuals – all for drug offenses.

The most recent executions of three prisoners for small-scale drug trafficking – including the hanging in July of a woman for the first time in nearly 20 years – are deeply worrying.

The country’s heavy-handed approach raises important moral and ethical questions, while doing little to deter crime or make Singaporeans safer than they already are. Research from Amnesty International found no evidence that the death penalty deterred crime more than life imprisonment.

The truth is that capital punishment is not an inevitable part of Asia’s political and judicial reality. Ending it is not an imposition of Western values on our societies. It’s a choice inspired by universal human rights – one that has been made by the majority of the world’s nations.

When I became Mongolia’s president, five crimes were eligible for the death penalty: two forms of terrorist attacks, sabotage, rape and aggravated murder. Predictably, ending the death penalty did not bring about waves of violent crime in Mongolia. Homicide rates had already been falling, and they continued to fall. In fact, crime seemed not to be affected at all by abolition, suggesting that the executions never had a deterrent effect to begin with.

While my experience has led me to oppose the death penalty under any circumstances, I find its continued use to punish nonviolent drug offenses in Singapore especially egregious. It is an excessive response to challenges that are best addressed by policies focusing on harm reduction and public health, rather than punishment.

Targeting those at the bottom of the illicit drug trade’s supply chain is particularly problematic, as many are coerced into doing what they do and are easily replaced by others in case of arrest. Hanging drug traffickers will not solve the bigger issues. It also puts Singapore out of step with neighboring countries – Thailand decriminalized the use of cannabis, and Malaysia has introduced legislation to follow suit.

I agree with many others who have pointed out that Singapore has done well in many other respects and made smart choices that have had significant impact on both crime and drug use. Its investments in world-class education, health care and infrastructure have contributed to stability and prosperity.

Singapore has a highly educated and skilled workforce, and a Singaporean passport ranks among the most desirable travel documents in the world. There’s much to be proud of. Singapore undoubtedly has a strong national brand.

But brands must be carefully managed. The global attention drawn to Singapore’s execution spree over the last 12 months has prompted many of its citizens to ask why they should hold on to a brutal and ineffective form of punishment, despite growing evidence that it is causing more harm than good. While the majority of Singaporeans still state that they support the death penalty, a 2018 study found that “there was a much lower support for the death penalty when respondents were faced with scenarios of cases … particularly so for drug trafficking.”

The Singaporean government meanwhile remains adamant that capital punishment works to deter drug traffickers and maintain public safety. In a letter to The Atlantic earlier this year, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States, Lui Tuck Yew, wrote: “Other countries can decide on the approach that best suits them. Our approach has saved countless lives and made Singapore one of the safest places in the world.”

While President Tharman has not shared his views on capital punishment publicly, he noted his support for giving people “second, third and fourth chances” at a forum last month – perhaps opening the door for a reversal to the government’s hard-line policy.

We all share a sincere desire to see our nations continue to prosper. Singapore will be better off without the death penalty.

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