The small West African country of Sierra Leone is updating its constitution for the first time since 1991. Many international activists have expressed hope that these constitutional updates will include formal abolition of the death penalty, or at least the removal of the language specifically condoning capital punishment from the current constitution.

Currently Sierra Leone is classified by organizations like Amnesty International and the Death Penalty Information Center as a “de facto abolitionist,” meaning no state sponsored executions have occurred in the last ten years, despite the practice’s legality.

According to Sierra Leone’s legal code, murder, treason, mutiny and armed robbery are punishable by death, but in 2012, President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma announced that “it is now government policy that the death penalty now operates as life imprisonment.”

The 1998 executions of 24 rebels belonging to the Revolutionary United Front, one of the principle armed groups in Sierra Leone’s civil war, marked the last instance of capital punishment in Sierra Leone.

And since these executions the country, especially under President Koroma’s administration, has taken significant steps toward the complete abolition of the death penalty.

Abolition of the death penalty would not only permanently stop what Amnesty International calls “the ultimate irreversible denial of human rights,” but also highlight Sierra Leone’s commitment to Article Four of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights that entitles every human being to “respect for his life and the integrity of his person.”

This strong commitment to protecting human life may also signal changes in application of the death penalty in other West African nations.

Moving toward abolition

In addition to refusing to carry out capital punishment sentences, on April 27, 2011, the 50th anniversary of Sierra Leonean independence, President Koroma pardoned 96 prisoners, five of whom were on death row.

More recently, in December 2012, 14 death row prisoners received either a presidential pardon or had their terms commuted to life imprisonment, leaving only one known prisoner awaiting execution in Sierra Leone.

In the years following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls for abolition of the death penalty in 2004 after the Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, Sierra Leonean government officials like President Koroma and Foreign Minister Manura Kamara have made strong statements about international trends toward abolition due to “a culture of rights” taking hold, and that “the abolition of the death penalty is desired by every civilized nation.”

As a reward for these strong statements in favor of banning capital punishment and demonstration of his commitment to preventing future executions, Hands Off Cain, an internationally renowned anti-death penalty organization, celebrated President Koroma as “Abolitionist of the Year” in 2012.

As just the third African leader to win this award, many people both in Sierra Leone and around the world were confident that the death penalty would soon be legally abolished.

The importance of de jure abolition

Though it seems well established that the Sierra Leonean government will not commit future executions, the need to transition to legal abolition, or abolition de jure, remains an important distinction. Recently, nearby Gambia, which was considered a de facto abolitionist of the death penalty for over thirty years, committed nine state-sponsored executions in August 2012.

Though these executions were shocking and uncharacteristic, they were, in fact, legal, because Gambia had never formally outlawed the death penalty. And while the international community criticized President Yahya Jammeh for the step backward in his politics, these critics could not hold his actions to any legal standard.

Some activists, like Solomon Sogbandi of Amnesty International of Freetown, worry the same sort of backsliding could occur in Sierra Leone without a constitutional change to abolish the death penalty.

These fears seemed partially validated when statements at a January 2014 conference on abolition of the death penalty in Freetown by Foreign Minister Samura Kamara that “what determines the status [of the death penalty] is the domestic environment and that abolition, whilst crucial for peace and stability in some situations, may perhaps undermine national security in others” were decidedly less aggressive than expected in regards to ending the death penalty both in practice and in law.

International and regional trends

While the Sierra Leonean government may be losing steam in its fight toward ending the death penalty, the global trend toward abolition is picking up speed.

Worldwide, 158 countries, over two thirds of the world’s nations, have denounced capital punishment.140 countries are de jure abolitionists and another 46, including Sierra Leone, are de facto abolitionists. In 2012, just 21 countries were known to have carried out state sponsored executions.

And while the number of abolitionist countries has ballooned from just 16 in 1977, the movement toward abolition of the death penalty has recently exploded with 22 countries abandoning capital punishment in the last eight years.

Between 2011 and 2012 the number of death sentences handed down in courts across the globe decreased by 11 percent, giving hope for even fewer executions in the coming years.

In West Africa the trend toward abandonment of capital punishment is gaining force as well. Currently seven of the fifteen countries in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), of which Sierra Leone is a part, have legally abolished the death penalty.

States like Benin, Togo, and Liberia have all outlawed capital punishment in the last ten years. Five other states, including Sierra Leone, have maintained abolitionist de facto status in regards to the death penalty.

The benefits of abolition

Following the trends set by its neighbours and regional allies through abolition the death penalty would allow Sierra Leone to put further pressure on the three remaining retentionist states in ECOWAS, namely the Gambia, Nigeria, and Guinea. Fewer executions and greater respect for human rights in West Africa can only serve to improve the lives of Sierra Leone’s citizens.

Abolition of the death penalty would also enable Sierra Leone to become party to the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that outlaws the death penalty.

As a party to both the ICCPR and its First Optional Protocol, strengthening its commitment to respecting and complying with international human rights norms can only help Sierra Leone prove its commitment to human rights for its upcoming Universal Periodic Review in March 2014, buying the country both international and domestic goodwill.

Finally, a constitutional reform that outlaws the death penalty in Sierra Leone will bring the government more in sync with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendation. This commission found that the Sierra Leonean civil war “resulted in the demeaning of human life and dignity,” and that “the State must now set the example by demonstrating that it places the highest value on all human life.” These conclusions lead the commission to recommend the Sierra Leonean government abolish the death penalty “without delay.”

In the ten years that have passed between the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendation and these constitutional updates, Sierra Leone has proven that it does not need to rely on capital punishment to maintain and build national security. Legally abolishing the death penalty after years of abstaining from capital punishment in practice would benefit Sierra Leone’s citizens, government, and future.