Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is among the latest executives to sign on to a global pledge against capital punishment first launched by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson earlier this year.
Sandberg, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Unilever CEO Alan Jope added their names to a list of more than 40 global business leaders who have joined the Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty campaign.
“I oppose the death penalty because it is cruel and disproportionately impacts people and communities of colour,” Sandberg said in a news release issued by the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. “We can build a more just future by ending the death penalty and reforming our broken criminal justice system.”
At least 483 people were executed in 18 countries in 2020, with four countries — Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia — accounting for 88 percent of known executions, according to Amnesty International. Seventeen people were executed in the United States in 2020.
The total number of executions cited by Amnesty International does not include the thousands of people that Amnesty International believes were executed in China, where death penalty data is classified as a state secret.
At least 28,567 people are known to be on death row around the world, and at least 1,477 people were sentenced to death in 54 countries in 2020, Amnesty International found.
While both the number of executions and death sentences fell last year due in part to the coronavirus pandemic, capital punishment remains a human rights issue around the world.
Opponents of the death penalty say it is inhumane, discriminatory and often used as a political tool or in flawed criminal justice systems. Methods of execution vary by country but include such practices as beheading, hanging, shooting, lethal injection and use of the electric chair.
Capital punishment is also final, and there are many cases around the world in which people on death row have been found to be innocent.
The Death Penalty Information Center maintains an “Innocence List” that tracks death row exonerations in the US, and the organisation has found that 185 people have been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.
In fact, the organisation estimates that a staggering one in every 8.3 people sentenced to death in the US since capital punishment resumed in 1970 was exonerated.
Signatories of the Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty campaign have committed themselves to help end the use of the death penalty around the world. Their companies, however, are not currently part of the pledge.
“Change comes when business leaders and advocacy leaders join forces — and this is exactly how our campaign is designed,” Celia Ouellette, CEO and founder of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, told Al Jazeera.
“The 40 current signatories are all individuals who recognize that they have massive voices and therefore massive potential to amplify and accelerate the work done by organisers and campaigners on the ground,” she added.
Corporate activism has been on the rise recently, with several major US companies taking a stand against Georgia’s voting laws, which have been criticised by civil rights groups and the Biden administration as serving to disenfranchise people of colour.
Hundreds of US companies and CEOs signed on to a letter opposing “any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter” from casting a ballot.
The statement was organised by Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of Merck, and its major signatories include General Motors, Netflix, Starbucks, Amazon, Google, and Warren Buffet.
A movie starring actor Will Smith that is bankrolled by Apple pulled its production from Georiga in response to the law, and Major League Baseball also announced that it would move its All-Star Game from Atlanta, Georgia to Denver, Colorado.
Earlier this year, business leaders also took a stand against the Trump administration following the deadly siege at the US Capitol on January 6, with a variety of firms, institutions and cities cutting ties with Trump and the Republican lawmakers who refused to certify the 2020 election results.
But in the US’s deeply polarised political climate, the corporate backlash has sparked its own backlash, with Republican legislators like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warning of “serious consequences” if “parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government”.
But Ouellette believes consumers now expect companies and their executives to speak up about injustice when they see it.
“Silence is no longer an option,” she said. “Leaders have a choice, they can either use their platforms for good or not. The social capital, leverage and reach that business leaders have can either be used for their own good or for the good of us all.”