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The abolition of capital punishment is a highly controversial movement which is rapidly spreading worldwide; it is an uphill battle, one which hasn’t yet been fully won, to protect one of the most basic forms of human rights. This is the account of the struggles the UK, one of the world’s leading liberal countries, faced when it set out to abolish the death penalty in the 1900s.
According to Amnesty International, a global international non-governmental organisation, capital punishment is ‘the ultimate denial of human rights’ as it denies people the freedom to life, a basic concept of freedom expressed centuries ago by liberal thinkers such as John Locke. The moral argument against the death penalty today is that it is wrong in every sense of the word; the murderer is cruel to kill but the state places itself on the same level as the murder when it decides to execute them. You may be very surprised to learn that officially capital punishment was prohibited in the UK for all criminal offenses only in 1998!
The execution of Edith Thompson in 1923 was an event which changed the perception of capital punishment in the UK from one of moral justice to pure pity for the criminals. Edith Thompson was executed for the murder of her husband who was killed by her lover. Although court procedures state that her lover admitted she had nothing to do with the crime and evidence swayed towards pushing back her execution in order to discuss it further Edith was sentenced to death. This scenario gave way to a new psychological study of criminals and many began to think it was unjust to execute the mentally instable and in some cases the court may decide to send an innocent person to death. It is around this period that extra-parliamentary groups such as the Howard League for Penal Reform and the National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty were formed and began campaigning against the death penalty.
The 1957 Act was one of those laws that had all the right intentions to defend human rights but it soon became clear just how unsound and banal the act was. According to this act if a criminal raped his victims then stabbed them he would not be sentenced to death whereas if he were to shoot them he would, it was an absolutely ridiculous law! The government knew this but did nothing to change it until the 1965 Murder Act. This act substituted the death penalty with life behind bars but did not include four capital offenses (treason, piracy with the intent to kill or hurt someone, arson in royal dockyards and espionage). Only in 1998 the death penalty was abolished for all prisoners by the Human Rights Act and the Crime and Disorder Act.
Today the UK works alongside the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP) and uses its powers as leader of the Commonwealth to promote the protection of human rights globally. Every day countries are writing their own history, currently Mongolian civilians are campaigning for their laws to be changed and reforms are being made in regards to abolishing capital punishment permanently. There is a wide argument about whether the death penalty is just or not but as far as the UK goes we can be proud of our history and pay tribute to our ancestors that fought for our right to live.