Photo Courtesy: AP News

Today is the World Day Against the Death Penalty 

Today, when globally the call for the abolition of the death penalty is renewed and its inhumane and cruel nature is highlighted, we must recognize that the death penalty is one of the many tools of oppression used by structures of discrimination and violence. 

This article sets out the way in which the death penalty functions as a tool of oppression and its role in an unrestrained national security regime that abuses the vulnerable and marginalized in the guise of protecting the state.  

In Sri Lanka two wars are being waged at present; the seemingly never-ending ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs’. Both wars rely on tools of oppression; namely the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the threat of the implementation of the death penalty. Both wars have striking similarities and are related. Both wars largely impact marginalized, vulnerable and discriminated against communities, such as ethno-religious minorities and the poor. 

At the intersection of the war on terror and war on drugs 

Rhetoric, both in mainstream as well as social media, plays a critical role in fueling the two wars. 

Rhetoric on the need to retain the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) rests on the supposed aim of making people safe by targeting those who are deemed deviants and not ‘proper’ citizens, i.e. terrorists, via the law. The reality however is that the PTA has created insecurity first for Tamils, then for Muslims and now dissenters generally. People arrested under this law suffer numerous rights violations as documented in the report of the national study of prisons conducted by the  Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, those arrested under the PTA are stigmatized and face multiple challenges, including accessing legal representation, which extends their incarceration. This in turn has a devastating impact on persons and their families. 

The war on drugs was initiated by President Maithripala Sirisena who in 2019 sought to resume executions of those convicted of drug offences, supposedly to eradicate the drug trade. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government has gone further and portrays the war on drugs as an extension of the war on terror. By pointing to the military’s victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government claims the military is best suited to tackle the ‘war on drugs’ as well. This is illustrated by statements of members of the present government, particularly the President, the Commander of the Army and the Secretary of Defence, who consistently equate the ‘fight against drugs’ with the ‘fight against terrorism’, and present drug eradication as an issue of national security

The government claims the PTA and death penalty are means through which it can increase the security of people. Yet, these are populist tools regimes use to portray their leaders as strong, i.e. a paternal figure who will safeguard the people. Gotabaya Rajapaksa for instance contested the 2019 Presidential elections on a platform of making the country safer from terror attacks. He is also a proponent of the de jure death penalty. His main contender Sajith Premadasa too claimed he would implement the death penalty for drugs and have strong counter terror measures if elected. He has since also called for those guilty of the 2019 Easter terror attacks to be sentenced to death. 

I have written elsewhere about the injustices suffered by persons detained under the PTA and those on death row and how it is exacerbated both by their ethno-religious identities and their socio-economic circumstances. In this context, both wars, which are couched within the framework of national security, are fueled by different forms of profiling -ethno-religious in the war on terror and socio-economic in the war on drugs-  discrimination and the perpetration of violence. The ethos which drives these wars is hyper-masculine, militarized, violent and control-based. 

The dual wars are also tools of distraction. Arrests under the PTA seem to increase when the government finds the need to justify the PTA’s existence, such as prior to a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. When there is a need to distract the public from harsh economic conditions they have to endure as a result of government action and inaction, Gnanasara Thero, the Buddhist monk who spews hate and vitriol against Muslims, appears on TV and issues warnings of impending ‘Islamist’ terror attacks. Likewise, the war on drugs is a tool used to distract the public from systemic and structural dysfunctionalities, such as politicization and corruption, in the police and prison system. It could also be employed to conceal the involvement of state officials in the drug trade because, as highlighted by the Global Organised Crime Index 2021, global patterns confirm ‘the role of state actors as vectors of organized crime by facilitating or taking part in illicit economies’

These factors point to the following. That the PTA and the death penalty are tools of oppression in a violent and rights violating national security regime that discriminates and perpetrates violence against the poor and ethno-religious minorities. That the wars on terror and drugs are used as distractions to divert attention from systemic and structural problems that need to be addressed. That national security is the catch-all net used to justify repressive state action in the dual wars. 

Without fear there is no national (in)security 

To sustain the wars on terror and drugs the government creates a constant state of insecurity. Impending terror attacks by ‘Islamic extremists’ and re-grouping by the LTTE are said to be ever-present, while the ‘drug menace’ is portrayed as the biggest threat to social order and well-being.  Fear is hence the basis upon which public support is sought for both the PTA and the death penalty. Fear thereby becomes a useful tool to the government to deflect or counter challenges to the PTA and the death penalty by pointing to threats to national security and public demands for increased security. 

Ultimately, the aim of the regime is to retain power at all cost. To such a regime the mobilization of fear becomes ‘fundamental to the state’s security provision’.

To this end, it fans the fears of the public and uses their demands for security and safety as justification for the repressive measures it employs. Public fear is weaponized by the government to normalize and create social acceptance of violence and cruelty against those it characterizes as deviants. The public supports the use of tools of repression without realizing that the reduction and prevention of crime requires creating a less violent and less cruel society in which humanity is prized, to which the PTA and death penalty are impediments.

An unchecked national security regime that functions on creating fear amongst the public to obtain support for restricting fundamental rights, can have grave social consequences. For example, in Colombia in early 2000s President Uribe introduced the concept of ‘Democratic Security’ which expected the participation of all citizens as agents of the state whereby security became a ‘collective effort’ and all citizens were expected to function as informants of the security sector, which ‘increases mistrust among communities and lowers the possibility of solidarity and political organisation’

A national security system needs to be adequately constrained by the ‘constitutional state from above’ and should be accountable to the institutions of ‘mass representation from below (parliament, political parties, and civil society generally)’. If it is not, there emerges a condition where two systems come into existence – the normative state which is ‘endowed with elaborate powers for safeguarding the legal order as expressed in statutes’, and the prerogative or administrative state which ‘exercises unlimited arbitrariness and violence unchecked by any legal guarantees’. There is therefore the danger that ‘despite the normative value, and safeguards of certain legal mechanisms in terms of checks and balances, the entire legal system can become or de facto function as an instrument at the disposal of the political authorities’

This danger is real.