Justice Champion Spotlight: Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty

As part of our Reimagining Justice channel, we're profiling justice champions, shining a spotlight on the organisations and leaders working to build a more fair and equal society.

This month, our Knowledge Partner, the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, is thrilled to launch an unprecedented and ground-breaking initiative: Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty.

For the first time ever, business leaders are joining forces to help end capital punishment. 


On March 18th 2021, as part of a panel at South by SouthWest, the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) CEO, Celia Ouellette, and Virgin founder, Richard Branson, launched the ‘Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty Campaign’. Joined by Sabrina Butler Smith, the first woman ever exonerated from death row in the United States, they urged governments everywhere to end capital punishment and called on fellow business leaders to get involved. 


The announcement was accompanied by a public written declaration which outlines the urgent need for universal abolition and the drivers for business support – a declaration that has already been signed by some of the most prominent names in industry. The text, as well as the latest list of signatories, can be found here


Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty Campaign

“The death penalty is broken beyond repair and plainly fails to deliver justice by every reasonable measure. It is marred by cruelty, waste, ineffectiveness, discrimination and an unacceptable risk of error.  By speaking out at this crucial moment, business leaders have an opportunity to help end this inhumane and flawed practice.”

Richard Branson, Founder & CEO, Virgin Group



Global support for the death penalty is at an all-time low, and more than 170 United Nations (UN) member states have now abolished it in law or declared a moratorium. The recent spate of federal executions in the US, and spikes in executions in countries like Egypt have sparked further human rights concerns, generated widespread media coverage and galvanised global opposition to the practice.


Never before have global leaders from the business community united against capital punishment, and the signatories represent a myriad of sectors, countries and cultures – from Guilherme Leal, Brazilian chairman of Natura & Co, to Jared Smith, the Utahn co-founder of powerhouse Qualtrics, to Strive Masiyiwa, Zimbabwean founder and executive chairman of telecommunications and technology giant Econet Group.


Signatories highlight the need for businesses to speak up on issues of inequality, the danger of executing innocent people and the need for fiscal responsibility. As Merck Mercuriadis, founder and CEO of Hipgnosis Songs Fund states:


“Business leaders are major contributors to the global economy and we need to step up and use our voices to create systemic change. The death penalty needs to end, and we need to be part of making that happen.”



The unacceptable risk was driven home by fellow music executive and justice activist Jason Flom, CEO of Lava Media. “Once you have met someone who was innocent and sent to death row – as I have – it is impossible to do anything other than crusade to end capital punishment. I challenge anyone who is not opposed to the death penalty to ask themselves the question, ‘what percentage of innocent people is it okay to execute?’”


The urgent need to end the death penalty is brought into even clearer focus by coronavirus. Helene Gayle, a medical doctor and President & CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, points out:


“As we attempt to heal and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic with its terrible loss of life, it feels even more urgent that we focus our attention on a totally preventable source of death and pain. We have to ask ourselves does the death penalty serve a real purpose for us as caring human beings? As someone who took an oath to preserve human life, for me the answer is a resounding no.”



The campaign demonstrates the increasing responsibility for business leaders to go beyond statements of support and demonstrate real allyship through meaningful action. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (co-founders, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream) said:


“Business leaders need to do more than just say Black Lives Matter. They need to walk the talk and be instrumental in tearing down all the symbols of structural racism in our society. The death penalty has a long history with oppression, and it needs to end. Now.”



RBIJ are coordinating the campaign and their CEO, Celia Ouellette, echoed this responsibility:


Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty Campaign

“This is a critical opportunity for business leaders to embrace their responsibility to speak out authentically on issues of racial and social justice – in a way that delivers real impact.”

Celia Ouellette, CEO, Responsible Business Initiative for Justice



Using the Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty declaration as a rallying point, the campaign seeks to build a movement of business leaders who can then support abolition initiatives around the world. The announcement has been met with enthusiastic support from advocacy groups and NGOs.


“Companies can play a crucial role – at a critical time – in the fight for abolition,” said Sarah Craft, Death Penalty Programme director at Equal Justice USA. “By calling for an end to the death penalty, they join a chorus of voices that has been steadily growing for years – a chorus that includes everyone from conservatives to evangelicals to leaders in the racial justice movement to families of homicide victims.”


RBIJ is thrilled to launch this unprecedented and ground-breaking initiative. We find ourselves at an historic moment, and the political stage is set for abolition of capital punishment in the United States and beyond. When business leaders and other critical stakeholders join forces to support change at these crucial moments, change occurs. Their support will be a game-changer in ending the death penalty. 


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