World Day against the Death Penalty on 10 October: a British view from UK High Commissioner, Paul Brummell
Today is World Day against the Death Penalty. Since 2003, people all over the world have, on this day, been making clear their opposition to this form of punishment. For the British Government, the death penalty has no place in the modern world: we believe that its use undermines human dignity; there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value; and any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable.
The UK uses its diplomatic network throughout the world to promote abolition. We do this jointly with our partners in the EU, which is similarly committed to abolition: no country can join the EU if it retains capital punishment and no EU country can extradite a person to another country where they may face capital punishment.
Beyond this, we work to persuade other governments to consider abolition. Through our project funding, we also empower civil society in many countries to campaign for this end. We accept that for many states, this is not an easy issue. In fact it took the UK some time to come to the above conclusions. Many will remember the well known cases of miscarriage of justice that persuaded Parliament to act: following the executions of Timothy Evans in 1950 and Derek Bentley in 1953, the state had to admit that mistakes had been made at both men’s trials, and both were posthumously pardoned. Parliament then took successive steps to restrict the use of the death penalty, and the last execution in the UK was in 1964. In 1998, under the influence of the European Convention on Human Rights, Parliament abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
In many countries, governments tell us that their public opinion favours the death penalty. Our experience suggests that public support tends to fall as the public becomes better informed about the issue, in particular about the lack of evidence to prove that the death penalty has any deterrent effect, and the possibility of miscarriage of justice. Moreover, there has for many years been a clear worldwide trend towards abolition.
Amnesty International, in its latest death penalty report, notes that of the 193 Member States of the United Nations, 172 carried out no executions in 2012. The number of countries that applied the death penalty in 2012, 21, is the lowest on record. Amnesty currently lists 140 countries as abolitionist, in that they have not carried out executions in the last ten years. Many of these have formally abolished it, and signed up to the relevant international instruments which place a ban on its use. The General Assembly of the United Nations, in December 2012, recorded its biggest vote yet in favour of a worldwide moratorium on executions, as a step toward abolition. 111 states voted in favour of this resolution, for which the UK had energetically lobbied in many countries around the world.
I hope that more countries will heed the call of the United Nations, and put an end to this practice, which gives the state an ultimate power over human life which I believe it should not exercise.