Centre for Applied Human Rights Lecture
The death penalty has been one of the key campaigning issues for the human rights movement, since taken on by Amnesty International in the 1970s. Three particular features can be observed in this context: the death penalty is being monitored, measured and quantified on a global level, perhaps more than any other human rights concern; the status of the death penalty in a country is often considered as an index of its overall record; and there is an inclination to treat the abolition of the death penalty in analogy to that of slavery. These results, Ron argues, in a growing tendency to perceive the death penalty as always “on the move”, often in a teleological trajectory inevitably leading to universal abolition. The present is seen as if from the future in which the death penalty had disappeared, exemplified by statements “it is just a matter of time before the death penalty is consigned to the history books” (Amnesty International 2019).
In this talk, Ron will argue that the teleological outlook is misplaced, and that though the use of the death penalty has been gradually diminishing, its full global demise may not be so easily achieved. Assertions that “the death penalty is a barbaric practice which has no place in the modern world” (Human Rights Watch 2022) are a form of “progressive rhetoric” (Hirschman 1991) that claims “history is on our side”, but in fact they serve to distort a reality in which death penalty policies often actually remain highly stable. In order to meet this challenge we need to analyze how the death penalty in fact adapts to the modern – and postmodern – world, including by focusing on its symbolic and cultural functions, which are more immune to the current emphasis on utilitarian arguments against the death penalty.
About the speaker
Ron Dudai is a senior lecturer at the Sociology and Anthropology Department, Ben Gurion University, and is currently an academic visitor at the centre of criminology, at Oxford university. His research is in the fields of human rights, transitional justice, and the sociology of punishment. He is the author of Penality in the Underground: The IRA’s Pursuit of Informers (Oxford University Press, 2022). He published on diverse issues such as human rights in the age of populism, treason and the death penalty, dilemmas of human rights activism, the commemoration of rescuers, transitional justice as social control, the adoption of human rights discourse by illiberal actors, symbolic reparations by armed groups, and the politics of analogies in divided societies, in leading journals including the British Journal of Sociology, British Journal of Criminology, Punishment & Society, Law & Social Inquiry, Political Studies, and Human Rights Quarterly. He’s an editorial board member of the Journal of Human Rights Practice, where he was previously co-editor. In his earlier years he worked as a researcher and policy adviser in human rights organizations, and currently serves on the board of several human rights NGOs.