Working for the abolition of the death penalty

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Writing in the Malaysian Insider on 10 October 2010, Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne explains why the UK is calling for the global abolition of the death penalty.

“On this, the seventh World Day Against the Death Penalty, it is grimly disturbing that we are continuing to see such widespread use of the death penalty across the world. Amnesty reports that in 2009, 18 countries carried out executions, with a total of 714 people executed during the year and these does not even include figures from China, where they remain a state secret.

The majority of the world’s executions take place in China, so the actual figure for 2009 is likely to be in the thousands. In the past five years, 70 Malaysians have been executed overseas, all in neighbouring countries.

Some of the crimes committed by people who have been sentenced to death are appalling. Why then does the United Kingdom government remain absolutely opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances, no matter what the crime?

The answer to my mind is clear.

First, there is no evidence to suggest that a person who commits a crime which carries a life sentence in prison would have acted any differently if he or she had known that their crime could have resulted in their execution.

Second, any miscarriage of justice leading to the imposition of the death penalty is irreversible and irreparable. It is difficult for us to forget the case in England of Derek Bentley, executed in 1953 when he was only 19 years old and eventually cleared 45 years later. How many countries which still retain the death penalty can be absolutely sure that all those executed were guilty of the crimes for which they received this sentence?

Third, if the state has the authority to execute its own citizens as a criminal penalty, the balance between the rights of the individual and the power of government is fundamentally altered.

Finally, the existence of the death penalty undermines human dignity and has no place in the 21st century. Abolishing the death penalty is a vital step towards the development of full and universal human rights.

I welcome the fact that a number of organisations in Malaysia, including Suhakam, share this view. We also know from recent appeals for clemency on behalf of Malaysians sentenced to death in China and Singapore that there is significant support for the principle of commuting a death sentence to life, if not for complete abolition.

There is now clear international momentum towards global abolition. In the past 10 years alone, 22 countries have abolished the death penalty. But global abolition is still many years away, and considerable challenges remain before we can live in a fully abolitionist world. Only 58 countries retain the death penalty. But that is still 58 too many.

Today October 10, 2010, the UK government will launch its new strategy for global abolition of the death penalty. We will direct our work at the most prolific users and in those places where we can make a real difference.

This may sometimes require a pragmatic approach with some countries. For example, encouraging states to formally establish moratoriums on the use of the death penalty. And we call on those countries that continue to rely on the death penalty, to ensure that international minimum standards are adhered to, including never executing juveniles, pregnant women or persons who have become insane, and ensuring rights to a fair trial and to appeal.

Our international project work is also yielding results. We fund projects to bring legal challenges to the constitutionality of the imposition and the application of the death penalty, and have recently supported successful challenges in Kenya, Barbados and Uganda among others.

Removal of the mandatory death penalty can significantly reduce the number of prisoners who are sentenced to death. Just last month, 167 prisoners on death row in Uganda had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment as a result of an FCO funded project and last year Kenya commuted the death sentences of its entire death row of 4000 prisoners. These are steps in the right direction.

But we cannot stop there. The abolition of the death penalty will not happen overnight and there is much hard work ahead. The UK remains firmly committed to taking action on its own and together with our international partners in order to achieve our ultimate aim of global abolition.”