World Day Against the Death Penalty

Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Anelay, delivered a speech at Portcullis House to mark World Death Penalty Day.

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

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I am delighted to be here for this most important event to mark World Death Penalty Day. And I am particularly glad to be able to share this platform with my noble friend Baroness Stern, the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Death Penalty. Beside us, I’m delighted to welcome Their Excellencies Ambassador Gomez Pickering of Mexico, and Ambassador Romero of El Salvador. I would also like to extend a warm welcome to Members of Parliament, representatives of Embassies and High Commissions here in London - and members of the Foreign Secretary’s Advisory Sub-Group on the Death Penalty.

Let me begin by making clear the purpose of today’s meeting. It is certainly not for me to lecture others, or suggest what the policies of other countries should be. Rather, it is a chance to debate today’s issue with the representatives of states that do not agree with us. And I would encourage all of you to take the opportunity, when the debate is opened to the floor, to give your point of view.

To reinforce this point, may I also say how pleased we were to take part in an initiative, suggested by the Swiss Government, to issue an unusual declaration for this year ‘s World Day Against the Death Penalty. For the first time, as far as we know, the declaration - which you have on your chairs places - explicitly acknowledges that the death penalty divides world opinion, as it does opinion within the UK. The position of the British Government is clear in opposing the death penalty in all circumstances - and in all countries - as a matter of principle. But at the same time, we do acknowledge that other states see this issue differently. And we want to engage in a genuine dialogue, to examine further all the arguments.

It is a dialogue in which the United Kingdom is well-versed, as it is a road we have travelled ourselves, in our own recent history.

When Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley were executed in 1950 and 1953, after flawed trials that led to posthumous pardons, it catalysed steps towards abolition in Britain. It reminded us of the inhumanity of capital punishment. And the risk – and the tragedy – of getting it wrong.

These cases contributed to what became a formative time in my early political life - Britain’s own capital punishment debate in the late 1960s. It made me question what was important – and what was not. And it filled me with pride - that this country, as polarised on the issue as it was then, could have a serious debate and come to an informed decision.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the last executions to take place in the UK.

But today, fourteen British nationals face the death penalty overseas. And while capital punishment remains in force, more could be affected in the future.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff are in constant touch with our nationals. We give support to them and their families, and we make the case forcefully to the governments concerned, that these people - no matter what they are believed to have done - should not die at the hands of state authorities.

I am pleased to say that it does make a difference. We judge that our interventions have helped to prevent death sentences, or to delay execution dates, giving time for further representations.

And this can be crucial when we have seen a great deal of evidence - particularly in the past year - that no system of justice is infallible. In a number of countries, there have been exonerations after new and compelling evidence of innocence was produced. Sometimes this has come from new techniques, such as the use of DNA testing.

In some cases, prisoners have been released after decades of detention - sometimes in solitary confinement - for offences which it is now recognised they did not commit. So, as long as the death penalty exists, the risk of wrongful execution is always present.

For me, that argument is compelling enough, but for some countries, it is more the financial cost of death penalty cases that has been uppermost in the public debate. Many are questioning whether the expense necessary for the special provisions and procedures that apply to death row prisoners is justified in terms of protecting the public.

For others, the arguments over the deterrent effect of the death penalty remain inconclusive - with many retentionist states being among those with the world’s highest rates of homicide, and violent crime.

But I would like to finish, if I may, with a request. As you know, later in the year, the General Assembly of the United Nations will again vote on a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty. Two years ago, this resolution was supported by 111out of 193 UN members. There is a slow, but steady increase in the number of states voting in favour. And it is our hope that the number will again rise in 2014.

So, I would like to ask all the diplomatic representatives here today to convey to your governments our encouragement for a positive vote on the resolution. The resolution does not call for outright abolition, as it recognises that many states have death penalty legislation and could not vote for such a call. But it promotes a moratorium which would allow time for the arguments to be examined.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen, I have set out the British Government’s position. We believe that the death penalty: undermines human dignity; there is no conclusive evidence of its value as a deterrent; and any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable.

I thank all the states, and all the members of civil society present here today, who share that position and work with us in support of our aims. But I also hope I have made clear that we welcome a genuine dialogue with those who do not agree with us.

So, I look forward to hearing my fellow speakers, and to the discussion which I hope will follow after that.

Thank you.

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Published 15 October 2014