Message Supporting a Global Moratorium on the Death Penalty

by Dalai Lama

In general, death is something none of us wants, in fact it is something we don’t even like to think about. When death takes place naturally, it is a process beyond our control to stop, but where death is willfully and deliberately brought about, it is very unfortunate. Of course, within our legal systems there are said to be certain reasons and purposes for employing the death penalty. It is used to punish offenders, to prevent them ever repeating their misdeed and to deter others. However, if we examine the situation more carefully, we will find that these are not the real solutions.

Harmful actions and their tragic consequences all have their origin in disturbing emotions and negative thoughts, and these are a state of mind, whose potential we find within all human beings. From this point of view, every one of us has the potential to commit crimes, because we are all subject to negative disturbing emotions and negative mental qualities. And we will not overcome these by executing other people.

What is deemed criminal can vary greatly from country to country. In some countries, for example, speaking out for human rights is considered criminal, whereas in other countries preventing free speech is a crime. The punishments for crimes are also very different, but usually include various forms of imprisonment or hardship, financial penalties and, in a number of countries, physical pain. In some countries, crimes that the government considers very serious are punished by executing the person who committed the crime.

The death penalty fulfills a preventive function, but it is also very clearly a form of revenge. It is an especially severe form of punishment because it is so final. The human life is ended and the executed person is deprived of the opportunity to change, to restore the harm done or compensate for it. Before advocating execution we should consider whether criminals are intrinsically negative and harmful people or whether they will remain perpetually in the same state of mind in which they committed their crime or not. The answer, I believe, is definitely not. However horrible the act they have committed, I believe that everyone has the potential to improve and correct themselves. Therefore, I am optimistic that it remains possible to deter criminal activity, and prevent such harmful consequences of such acts in society, without having to resort to the death penalty.

My overriding belief is that it is always possible for criminals to improve and that by its very finality the death penalty contradicts this. Therefore, I support those organizations and individuals who are trying to bring an end to the use of the death penalty.

Today, in many societies very little importance is placed on education or the development of human values through social programs and entertainment. In fact, if we take television programming as an example, violence, including killing, is regarded as having a high entertainment value. This is indicative of how misguided we have become.

I believe human beings are not violent by nature. Unlike lions and tigers, we are not naturally equipped to kill with sharp teeth and claws. From a Buddhist viewpoint, I believe that the basic nature of every sentient being is pure, that the deeper nature of mind is something pure. Human beings become violent because of negative thoughts which arise as a result of their environment and circumstances.

I wholeheartedly support an appeal to those countries who at present employ the death penalty to observe an unconditional moratorium. At the same time we should give more support to education and encourage a greater sense of universal responsibility. We need to explain the importance of the practice of love and compassion for our own survival and to try to minimize those conditions which foster murderous tendencies, such as the proliferation of weapons in our societies. These are things even private individuals can work towards.

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