In December, the UN General Assembly voted by the largest margin yet recorded in favour of establishing a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty, confirming the trend towards global abolition. The resolution attracted 111 votes in favour, with 41 against and 34 abstentions. (In 2010, the vote was 109 in favour, 41 against and 35 abstentions.) Countries voting in favour for the first time included the Central African Republic, Chad, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Tunisia. While not binding, the growing support for this resolution, which is tabled every two years, is indicative of strengthening world opinion against the use of the death penalty.
The UK Government opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. We consider that its use undermines human dignity, that there is no conclusive evidence that it has any value as a deterrent and that any miscarriage of justice is irreversible and irreparable. The Government’s Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty, which was updated in October 2011, sets out three goals. We aim to increase the number of abolitionist countries or countries with a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. We want to secure further restrictions on its use in countries where it is still applied, and reductions in the numbers of executions. Finally, when the death penalty is applied, we aim to ensure that EU minimum standards on its use are met. These include the right to a fair trial and a prohibition on the execution of juveniles.
We continue to work with other countries through bilateral initiatives and through the EU and UN. Participation in high-level meetings at the UN in New York and lobbying in capitals around the world contributed to the increase in the number of countries supporting the General Assembly resolution.
Together with EU partners, we have also raised the death penalty with a number of countries that continue to use it, or have considered doing so. These included Belarus, Iran, Iraq, the Gambia, the United States and Japan.
In both Iran and Iraq, there was an alarming rise in the number of executions in 2012. The Gambia carried out nine executions in August following a moratorium which had lasted 27 years. India also carried out an execution in November following an eight-year moratorium. Together with EU partners we made strong representations in all these countries, as well as in Belarus (the only country in Europe to retain the death penalty), the United States and Japan. In Japan, which carried out seven executions, Minister for Asia Hugo Swire also issued a statement expressing his concern, and our embassy in Tokyo encouraged regular working-level contacts with Japanese experts and civil society to promote abolition.
The US continues to be one of the Government’s top-five death penalty priority countries, and throughout 2012 we raised the death penalty regularly with individual states, including specific cases, both bilaterally and through the EU. The use of the death penalty in the US is declining steadily. Of the 42 executions carried out in 2012, three quarters took place in only four states: Arizona, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas. In April, Connecticut became the fifth state in five years to abolish the death penalty. California narrowly voted to retain the death penalty in November, although no executions have been carried out in the state since 2006. As part of our overall engagement in California, the UK funded a conference to raise awareness of alternatives to the death penalty. The UK also supported the work of abolitionist groups, funded targeted training for US capital defence lawyers and supported a visit to the US by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty.
In China, our project work has established useful channels of communication between UK experts and their Chinese counterparts, encouraging discussion on alternatives to the death penalty. China does not publish figures for executions but it is believed to carry out more than any other state in absolute terms. In the last few years, however, significant new judicial restrictions have been put in place on the use of the death penalty, which reliable local sources indicate have led to the number of executions reducing by approximately half since 2006. We continue to support project work by leading academics who work with judges and prosecutors to explore ways to reduce and restrict the scope and application of the death penalty in China.
The FCO works closely with the Foreign Secretary’s Advisory Group on Human Rights, which includes an Advisory Sub-group on the Death Penalty. The sub-group, which is made up of experts drawn from academia, the legal profession, NGOs and Parliament, provides the FCO with expert advice to help shape the implementation of our strategy. The sub-group met twice during the year. Discussions focused on how we might make progress towards abolition in China, Iran, Iraq, Japan and the United States.
The FCO also works closely with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Abolition of the Death Penalty, chaired by Baroness Stern, which works with parliamentarians worldwide to bring about abolition. The FCO supports the APPG’s work and has in recent months helped to organise lobbying visits by its members to the Far East and the United States, where local posts arranged contacts with key local representatives.
On 9 October, we marked the tenth World Day Against the Death Penalty when Senior Minister of State Baroness Warsi spoke in support of our position at an event in the Houses of Parliament attended by representatives of over 30 London embassies. Because of its proximity to the vote at the UN General Assembly, we used this meeting to lobby those present about their country’s vote at the UN and we believe that this event contributed actively to the positive result. Many of our embassies and high commissions also used World Day Against the Death Penalty to promote awareness of our aim of global abolition, delivering our message through public events, blogs, video messages, podcasts and media articles.
In the past year we have also supported over a dozen civil society projects on the death penalty. These included projects in Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan, with outreach to Egypt, Algeria and other countries affected by the Arab Spring. Through our support we were able to encourage increasing debate on abolition in the Middle East and North Africa. We supported a major regional conference in Rabat at which differing interpretations of Sharia Law relating to the death penalty were discussed.
In 2013, we will continue to implement our strategy and its three goals. Our lobbying in advance of the UN General Assembly Resolution on the Moratorium on the Use of the Death Penalty helped us to identify countries which may be prepared to review their death penalty policy. We will seek to focus on these, offering where appropriate to share the UK’s political and technical experience on abolition. We also expect again to support a number of projects on the death penalty in countries around the world.