Written by Ionel Zamfir,
On 10 October 2017, the world celebrates the 15th anniversary of the International Day against the Death Penalty – a good opportunity to highlight what the EU – as a front line diplomatic actor and donor to the cause – does to oppose the death penalty, and also have a look at the situation regarding the death penalty in the world. The EU takes an unequivocal position of zero tolerance against the death penalty.
This year’s focus on poverty
The focus of this year’s International Day against the Death Penalty is on poverty. There is a strong link between poverty and death penalties. According to the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, people living in poverty are at a greater risk of being sentenced to death and executed. A low social and economic status can affect access to justice, as it requires financial resources to pay for judicial assistance. Poor people, as well as foreign workers (who tend to be poor, e.g. in Saudi Arabia), are more likely to be discriminated against in judicial proceedings. According to the UN Secretary-General’s annual supplement to his five-yearly report on capital punishment, the availability and quality of legal representation is a key factor in determining whether a defendant receives a death sentence. This runs contrary to the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), especially those concerning the right to a fair trial (article 14) and the right to non-discrimination (articles 2(1) and 26).
Death penalties in the world
According to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person. As yet, there is no general prohibition against the death penalty in international law. At the global level, only states that have ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR are under an obligation to aim for its abolishment. To date, 85 states have ratified this Protocol. The ICCPR does not itself ban the death penalty, but sets strict conditions under which it can be carried out, most importantly only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law. The application of the death penalty must also be consistent with the other provisions of the Covenant, in particular the right to a fair trial. The great majority – 169 countries – have ratified this Covenant, while another six have signed it. Several Gulf countries (Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates), some countries in South and South-East Asia (Bhutan, Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar) and several Pacific Island States have not taken any action and are therefore not bound by its conditions. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by all UN members with the exception of USA) prohibits the application of the death penalty on minors.
The number of abolitionist states is actually higher than that of states who are party to the Second Optional Protocol. More than two thirds (141) of the countries in the world, are abolitionist in law or practice, and 104 of them have abolished the death penalty through legislation, and the trend is for more countries to join them. Most recently, on 20 and 21 September 2017 respectively, the Gambia signed, and Madagascar ratified, the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR on the abolition of the death penalty.
Diminishing support for the death penalty is also linked to increased awareness about its moral abhorrence and practical futility. The death penalty infringes human dignity and the right to life. The execution itself as well as the very long procedure that precedes it, which comes with considerable psychological consequences for the condemned, may constitute ill and degrading treatment and torture. There is enough evidence that the death penalty is extremely costly in states that take judicial standards seriously (such as the USA), and given the length and complexity of appeals, it is clear that execution is not cheaper for public budgets than life sentences. On the other hand, there is absolutely no compelling evidence that the death penalty has a deterrence effect on crimes such as murder. Moreover, the procedure is definitive, and cannot be reversed in the case of a miscarriage of justice, where an executed person is proved to have been innocent.
Despite this evidence, executions continue in certain countries. According to Amnesty International, at least 1 032 people were executed in 23 countries in 2016. This number does not include the thousands of executions believed to have been carried out in China – a country where death penalty statistics are kept secret. The countries that executed the most people in 2016 were – in descending order – China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan.
EU policy on the death penalty
The European Union is among the strongest opponents of the death penalty in the world. The 1998 EU Guidelines on the Death Penalty were the first of their kind to be adopted, and were revised in 2013. They include a list of standards to respect when the death penalty is carried out. The EU strategic framework on human rights and democracy prioritises the fight against death penalty, and the EU’s ongoing action on human rights and democracy outlines the EU’s specific measures.
The EU has been very active multilaterally, taking part in alliances to initiate several resolutions in the UN General Assembly asking for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. The EU issues statements, organises campaigns, and intervenes on behalf of those condemned to death, particularly when minimal standards are not upheld. The EU addresses the issue in its human rights dialogues with partner countries, and is also the lead donor to civil society organisations advocating abolition, via its Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). The EU also bans the export of substances that can be used to carry out executions, and launched an alliance in September 2017, under the UN framework, for states supporting a trade ban on such substances.
The European Parliament’s position
The European Parliament fully supports the EU position on the matter and has repeatedly asked for EU action in the area to be reinforced. In its December 2016 Resolution on the EU annual report on human rights and democracy in the world: the European Union’s policy on the matter 2015, the European Parliament stressed that it is important for the EU to continue to advocate against the death penalty, to explore new ways of campaigning, and to support actions through the EIDHR aimed at preventing death sentences or executions. Parliament also called for EU delegations to continue awareness-raising campaigns. In its July 2017 recommendation to the Council on the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly, the EP recommended the Council ‘recall the EU’s position on zero tolerance for the death penalty; to maintain strong engagement in promoting an end to the death penalty worldwide; to call for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty and to further work towards its universal abolition’. Each year, in its urgent resolutions on the human rights situation in countries that maintain the death penalty, Parliament frequently brings the issue to the fore.
Today, as on every International Day against the Death Penalty, the European Union will issue a joint statement with the Council of Europe, another strong advocate for its abolition.