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 the death penalty as a 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.
Reflecting our primary concern, we intervene directly with foreign governments on behalf of any British citizens who are sentenced to death. We forcefully make the point that our citizens, no matter what they are believed to have done, should not die at the hands of state authorities whose first duty is to protect citizens, not to kill them.
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 the UK 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.
What is the current situation in other countries? Experts believe there were about 3600 executions in the world in 2012. Executions are most numerous in China followed by Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The USA also continues to maintain the death penalty.
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 now 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.
The UK hopes that more countries will heed the call of the United Nations to put an end to this practice.