By Joel Arzaga

VARIOUS BILLS seeking to revive the death penalty in the Philippines are now pending in Congress, with the President’s apparent support. Before the inevitable impassioned debates ensue, it is good to look at the legal framework and some realities that the death penalty needs to contend with, if it is to be reinstituted in the country.

The 1987 Constitution of the Philippines is unequivocal in its affirmation of the invaluable dignity of every human person, mandating the State to guarantee full respect for human rights. Paramount of all privileges and liberties every human person is inherently entitled to is the right to life, which the State is duty-bound to protect from the moment of conception, and against any undue and unlawful deprivation.

This utmost value placed by the State on the right to life is reflected in international covenants it entered into, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which forcefully assert man’s inherent dignity and his inalienable rights, including the right to life.

In fact, the Philippines signed and ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, which states that the “abolition of the death penalty contributes to enhancement of human dignity… and should be considered as progress in the enjoyment of the right to life.”

As a State Party to this, the Philippines has undertaken that “no one within the jurisdiction… shall be executed” and that it shall “take all necessary measures to abolish death penalty within its jurisdiction.”

This obligation under international law was rightfully complied with through Republic Act 9346, the current law which prohibits the imposition of the death penalty in the Philippines.

With the State’s declared policy to uphold the right to life and its concomitant obligation to safeguard it under the Constitution and international law, it becomes glaring that the efforts to restore the death penalty in the Philippines is a step in regression, a flagrant violation of our international commitments, and a blatant disregard of the values held sacred by the Filipino people.

The reimposition of the death penalty would usher in a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment proscribed by the Constitution, outlawed and condemned by the international community as a poor, outdated, and ineffective way of administering justice, which only serves to perpetuate a cycle of violence.

The case for death penalty is further dampened by the absence of any objective, empirical, and scientifically verifiable study that shows it has the effect of deterring criminal behavior or decreasing criminal propensity.

On the contrary, a study published in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology found an “overwhelming consensus among the world’s leading criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment,” even characterizing the “deterrence hypothesis for a myth.”

Although a noble pursuit worthy of the State’s urgent action, solving criminality should not be endeavored at the expense of another life. Worse, the life wasted may be an innocent one — a risk a State committed to preserve every human life should not even consider taking.

While the effectiveness of the death penalty in curbing crime is in great doubt, the susceptibility of our criminal justice system to human error is well-documented.

The Supreme Court, in People vs. Mateo, noted that it “modified or vacated… an astounding 71.77% of the total of death penalty cases directly elevated before the Court on automatic review that translates to a total of 651 out of 907 appellants saved from lethal injection.” This simply points to the reality that the judgment of man is not infallible, as a judge, learned and experienced as he may be, is not immune to misappreciation of evidence, erroneous application of the law, and other human considerations that might blur objectivity and hinder impartiality.

A judgment imposing the death penalty carries with it the finality of the loss of a life that cannot be undone, remedied, or restored. It puts a definitive end to a human person and his infinite capacity for goodness and reformation.

While all can commiserate with the plight of victims of various atrocities and their families, the simple truth is that the loss of another life solves nothing.

On the contrary, each life lost through the death penalty would only constitute another grave affront to humanity, where all of us become victims, and would result to even louder cries to heaven for justice.

The State, then, whose prime duty it is to serve and protect the people, must not renege on its commitment to keep sacrosanct the right to life of every human person, without exception, and in all stages, through means consistent with his invaluable dignity and immeasurable worth.


Joel Arzaga teaches Philippine Politics and Governance in the School of Law and Governance of the University of Asia and the Pacific.