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.
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.
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. But abolition is a global trend: most of Latin America, African states like South Africa, Rwanda, Benin and Burundi, and Asian countries like Nepal, Mongolia and Cambodia, have also abolished the death penalty.
We accept that for some states, this is not an easy issue, and we acknowledge that many people – including in the UK – support capital punishment in principle.
The UK’s own path to abolition was a long one. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the last executions to take place in the UK. At 8 am on 13 August 1964, two men were hanged for murder in different prisons in Manchester and Liverpool. Two months later a new Government was elected and in 1965, Parliament suspended the death penalty, abolishing it in 1969.
(Efforts had begun as early as 1808 to reduce the number of capital offences but a series of notorious miscarriages of justice after the Second World War increased opposition to the death penalty. These included:
• Derek Bentley, executed in 1953 despite serious doubts over some of the evidence used at his trial, as well as his mental condition. Campaigns to have his conviction overturned finally succeeded in the Court of Appeal in 1998;
• Mahmood Mattan, hanged for murder on 3 September 1952. The London Court of Appeal found in 1998 that the case against him had been “demonstrably flawed”;
• Timothy Evans, hanged on 15 July 1953 however granted a posthumous pardon in 1966.
UK Courts have determined that miscarriages of justice took place in a number of cases since 1969 which could have resulted in innocent people being executed, had the death penalty remained in use. (cf for example the “Guildford Four”, and “Birmingham Six”)
No one can seriously argue that errors can be excluded from any penal system. Over 140 people have now been exonerated from death row in the United States, in some cases after DNA evidence proved their innocence. The UK does not believe that the execution of innocent people can ever be justified.
We also believe the use of capital punishment undermines human dignity. As to its deterrent effect, a number of states that retain the death penalty consistently record among the highest homicide rates in the world.
In some countries, governments argue that their public opinion favours the death penalty. Of course we uphold the democratic process, however 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.
For many years now, there has been a clear worldwide trend towards abolition. In 1977, only 16 countries in the world were abolitionist. In a report published in September 2014, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that in the mid-1990s, 40 countries were known to carry out executions every year. Since then, the number of countries carrying out executions has halved, and about 160 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice: of those, 98 have abolished it altogether.
Later this year, the UK will be taking part in the debate on the death penalty in the General Assembly of the United Nations. This debate takes place every two years. In 2012, we saw the biggest vote yet in favour of a worldwide moratorium on executions, by 111 states. We hope that ever more countries will heed the call of the United Nations, and put an end to this practice.