"The basic dignity of every individual should be upheld"

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

Foreign Office Minister for Human Rights Jeremy Browne gave a speech at the UK launch for the Global Abolition of the Death Penalty.

Thank you, all of you, for coming on what is, well it’s a beautiful day, but a very bleak topic, but one that I want to give prominence to, and I’m grateful to all of you for taking such an interest in what we are doing.

Well my starting, my starting point is this. I was just doing a radio interview and I was asked why we have any interest in this matter at all, isn’t this for individual countries to decide for themselves? We don’t have the death penalty in Britain, why do we have to try and impose our values on everybody else? That was the premise of the question. And I answered it by saying that you can view a particular case, say, let’s say for example the very high profile case of the woman in Iran who is potentially going to be stoned to death. It seems to me you can take two approaches to that. You can either say it’s nothing to do with us, we’re going to walk by on the other side of the road, or you can say that we have a moral obligation to take a view and to express that forcefully and try and bring about change in a way that we think is good, not just for that individual but for that country and for humanity as a whole. And our approach is the second of those two approaches.

So we are today announcing if you like a death penalty campaign which has three components to it, because I am a realist and I don’t anticipate I’m afraid to say that the death penalty will cease to be applied with immediate effect. So we have if you like three tiers of objectives.

The first one is to try and reduce the number of countries that apply the death penalty, perhaps in preference they would not have it on the statute book at all but there may be countries that have it on the statute book but do not apply it. But in practical terms what matters is the number of countries that to all intents and purposes do not use the death penalty. Now that has been increasing incrementally year on year. We have seen a progress from over many decades and it was radical at the time, I often say this to people, when the death penalty was abolished in Britain in the 1960s that was a very controversial decision. So it is controversial for every country when they take that step but, and more and more countries are taking that step and we want to see more go down that path.

The second area that we want to see progress on is an, a reduction in the number of executions in countries that do insist on continuing to use the death penalty and a reduction in the number of offences that attract the death penalty, which are slightly different but related points. That if a country is going to insist on having the death penalty we would like them not to, we hope to get to that point as soon as possible, but in the interim, the fewer people who are executed and the number of offences attracting the death penalty being reduced are both important to us.

And the third area, you could say the least ambitious but I think it’s right to be realistic, is that countries that do use the death penalty should observe basic international standards. Now what do I mean by that? I mean things like not executing juveniles, not executing pregnant women, not, not inflicting excessive pain on people who are being executed.

So there are, there are three categories that we are seeking to advance, they are not mutually exclusive, I hope we can get as many countries as possible in to the first of those categories, that is obviously the best, and transition them in to absolute abolition.

But this is a, a, if you like, a battle of ideas because within the European Union we have an ability to, to, to influence the, the framework of, of laws that we all abide by, we have some, some ability to wield influence within for example the Commonwealth, but ultimately countries decide their own laws for themselves and that is, that is proper. So what we are trying to do is trying to make a compelling moral case, and it is one that I am personally extremely supportive of, I’ve been a member of Amnesty International for many years, I have always believed that the death penalty should not apply. And the reasons I believe it, it shouldn’t apply, there are, there are practical reasons, people always say well the main reason the death penalty shouldn’t apply is because if you execute somebody who subsequently turns out to have been innocent of the offence that they were charged with and found guilty of committing, then of course you have no way of undoing that punishment. And that is true. It is also widely said, and the evidence suggests this is true as well, that the death penalty is not a deterrent to people committing crimes.

So both of those are for me, personally, good reasons, but they are not the overwhelming reason. My overwhelming reason, ‘cause actually, I mean let me spool back, my, even if it was found that it was a deterrent I would still not support the death penalty. That, that’s the big step. And that and, so it comes down to the question of what is the main reason, and the main reason for me is essentially again a moral reason. It is that, is that the, the sanctity, the, the basic dignity of every individual should be upheld and that the state should not be able to terrorise its own citizens by imposing upon them the ultimate sanction in this way. And that for me is a, is a moral decision and I want us as a British Government to stand up and to take a moral stance on this issue right around the world.

And we will come in questions to no doubt, to which countries use the death penalty and how they can be compared to one another. And it is right in my view to, to understand the circumstances of different countries, that’s why we have different categorisations, I think we should be realistic as well as ambitious in what we can achieve, but ultimately we should be clear about our own moral framework and the end point that we want to reach.