Despite recent setbacks, the trend towards the universal abolition towards the death penalty remains

International standards

By Elise Guillot, on 8 February 2017

Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, Vice-President of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty and Director of Together against the Death Penalty (ECPM), and William Schabas, law Professor at Middlesex University London and expert in the death penalty, have facilitated the meeting, presided by Baroness Vivien Stern.

Representatives from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, parliamentarians as well as researchers, including Sir Roger Hood, expert in the death penalty, and NGOs (including several members and partners of the World Coalition, such as Penal Reform International, Harm Reduction International and the Death Penalty Project) attended the event.

Despite recent setbacks, an encouraging international situation

The speakers reviewed the countries which constitute a challenge to the abolition of the death penalty, focusing on the USA, the Philippines and Turkey. The latter two states have a similar profile: they abolished the death penalty and now consider to re-establish it. According to Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, it is necessary to stay vigilant, as the reintroduction of the death penalty in one of those countries may establish an international precedent.

Nevertheless, it would not be the first time the Philippines re-establish the death penalty: the Congress re-introduced the capital punishment in 1993 after the Constitution had abolished it in 1987. In 2006, the death penalty had been anew abolished. However, William Schabas points out a significant difference between the current situation and 1993:  in the meantime, the Philippines have indeed ratified the Second Optional Protocol to ICCPR, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. But this Protocol does not entail any exit clause. According to the expert, the Philippines cannot re-introduce the death penalty without violating their international law obligations: the reestablishment of the death penalty would therefore be illegal as regards international law.

Regarding the situation in Turkey, Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan spoke of “cheap populism”. The death penalty has indeed been forbidden by the Constitution. Besides, the state ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and is thus member of the Council of Europe – but would risk an exclusion in case of reintroduction of the capital punishment.

The situation of those two countries is not unprecedented in the History: China (747-759) and then Japan (794-1185) had abolished the death penalty in the Middle Ages before re-establishing it.

In the USA, D. Trump’s election to the Presidency as well as the referenda in three States were serious setbacks for the abolitionist cause. President Trump nominated a conservative Justice, Neil Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court: against this background, it remains unlikely that the Court will take a decision in favour of the abolition of the death penalty in the near future.

Despite those setbacks and the reprisal of executions in countries which used to observe a de facto moratorium for several years (Gambia, Jordan, Chad, Pakistan, Indonesia), both speakers underlined that the international situation of the death penalty is rather positive, as the trend towards the universal abolition remains. A group of hard core retentionist countries still applies the death penalty, and a lengthy work may be necessary to reach the abolition in those countries. It is therefore no surprise that we currently observe a slowdown of the number of countries abolishing the death penalty.

Moreover, if the number of countries voting in favour of the UN resolution calling for a universal moratorium on the death penalty has stagnated this year, countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, absent at the vote, may vote in favour of the 2018 resolution.

What strategy to reach the universal abolition?

The speakers underlined that it was now important to focus on countries which have been observing a moratorium for numerous years, so as to convince them to confirm the suspension of the executions by abolishing the death penalty in law and thus definitively prevent setbacks. Reaching the abolition in those countries would also strengthen the abolitionist camp.

Regarding the “countries at risk”, it is crucial, according to ECPM Director, to conduct a “containment strategy” so as to prevent new countries from putting the abolition of the death penalty into question.

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