Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Death Penalty Research and Funding Opportunities: The Challenge of Balancing Conflicting Interests


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How can governmental agencies and academics work together to produce high-impact scientific research? What opportunities and difficulties does this cooperation entail? How can researchers conduct rigorous investigations when different funding agencies are involved in the project?

These and other issues were discussed during the Knowledge Exchange and Impact seminar that, on Monday 2 February, hosted Christopher Layden, officer of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Dr Mai Sato, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Criminology. The seminar sought to elucidate the ways in which researchers can balance the variegated and, sometimes, conflicting interests of different actors involved in governmentally funded death penalty research, and foster positive relationships while bearing in mind the challenges that this cooperation might entail.

In order to highlight the opportunities and difficulties that researchers can encounter when juggling between competing governmental interests, scientific goals, and wider policy implications, Mai illustrated a wide research project she is currently conducting in Japan with the support of the British, German, Swiss, and Norwegian foreign offices.

Mai’s research investigates public attitudes towards the death penalty in Japan. It starts from the observation that, in this country, public support for the death penalty constitutes the most powerful official justification for the retention of this penal practice. In order to provide empirical support to such claims, the Japanese government repeatedly quotes the findings of a governmental survey conducted every five years - the latest one just published this month.

However, it is today widely recognized that public responses vary according to the kind of background information provided to respondents, and to the ways in which the survey questions are framed. In line with this recognition, Mai’s research starts from the hypothesis that due to the way in which it has been designed, the public opinion survey conducted by the Japanese government fails to reflect the real attitudes of the Japanese public towards capital punishment.

In order to test this hypothesis, she decided to conduct a parallel investigation of public attitudes to the one proposed by the Japanese government. Her inquiry includes both a quantitative and a qualitative investigation, structured in a conventional survey and a deliberative consultation. Her aim is to provide evidence on the reliability of the findings of the government, shed light on the complex nature of public responses to questions concerning capital punishment, and to unveil whether the Japanese public actually supports the practice to the extent death penalty supporters in Japan would like us to believe.

It is at this point that the interests of governmental agencies enter the picture. Indeed, while the foreign offices of abolitionist countries vary widely in their approach to the research they finance - with some governments requiring researchers to use the funds for specific purposes, and others allowing them broader discretion regarding the administration of the project - when it comes to financing research in this area they all share a common interest: fostering the possibility of future abolition of the death penalty.

In the case of Mai’s research, one major issue arises in this respect. What happens if her public opinion survey confirms the findings of the governmental poll, that is, that the Japanese public actually is against the death penalty? Such finding would clearly conflict with governmental interests aimed at fostering future abolition. As Mai highlights, the way to tackle this issue is to make clear, at the very outset of the project, that the investigator cannot guarantee the outcome of the research.

Looking more specifically at the role of the British Foreign Office in financing death penalty research, Christopher Layden illustrated the Human Rights and Democracy Program. This funding programme has the overall strategic objective of fostering human rights around the world. It runs every year and funds activities that contribute to business and democratic development, to the protection of freedom of expression, religion and belief, to the prevention of torture and sexual violence in conflicts, and to abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

Three main reasons explain why abolition of the death penalty figures so prominently amongst the strategic objectives of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. First, the government argues, the death penalty undermines human dignity. Second, research has shown that even when extensively regulated, the capital punishment system cannot completely eliminate the possibility of errors from its daily administration. And finally, this inevitability of human error leads to wrongful executions of the innocent, which cannot be rectified.

Clearly, when designing a research proposal for the Human Rights and Democracy programme, researchers should bear in mind the strategic objectives of the government, and the ways in which their proposal aligns with such objectives. Further, they should remember that the government is particularly interested in financing research in specific target areas, currently mainly concentrated in the Asian Pacific and the Caribbean, in countries where research projects and interventions are deemed likely to make a difference.

Looking more closely at these objectives and target countries, we find three main areas of interest. Firstly, the government seeks to increase the number of abolitionist countries, or of countries with a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. Countries where a moratorium is, or has recently been in force include Papua New Guinea, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Secondly, it tries to reduce the number of executions and to restrict the use of capital punishment in retentionist countries, such as Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Taiwan and India. Thirdly, it attempts to ensure that minimum standards are met in countries that retain the death penalty, such as Thailand and Japan.

While these attempts stem from an arguably noble cause, that is, the protection of human dignity and the safeguard against wrongful convictions and executions, when governments of abolitionist countries attempt to influence the penal policies of retentionist countries, complex foreign policy issues arise. Some states maintain that such interventions constitute a violation of the principle of non–interference in other states’ domestic affairs. However the UK view is that the use of the death penalty is now a part of international law relating to human rights, and thus a legitimate object for comment and diplomatic action. The complexity of this issue goes beyond the scope of this article. However, death penalty and human rights researchers should bear these conflicting interests and ethical issues in mind when carrying out governmentally funded research projects, and take up the difficult challenge of balancing their scientific objectives with the policy interests of their funding agencies on the one hand, and with the cultural sensitivity and moral beliefs of their target audience on the other.