< Viewpoints < 2006


“Europe should remain a death penalty-free zone”


[21/08/06] Europe is now a death-penalty-free zone. All members of the Council of Europe have abolished capital punishment in law or practice. This is great progress in the struggle for human rights and must be protected against those who still argue for a return to the days of executions.

The application of the death penalty violates the most fundamental of human rights, the right to life and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Indeed, capital punishment has no place in civilised, democratic societies governed by the rule of law. It is simply not compatible with European values, as the European Commission reaffirmed recently in response to the Polish President’s views on capital punishment.

This is not merely the position of human rights organisations. A consensus between Council of Europe member states has been reached on the death penalty. Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which abolishes the death penalty in peacetime, has been ratified by all Council of Europe member states, except one. Protocol No. 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which concerns the abolition of the death penalty in war as well as peacetime, has been signed by 44 out of 46 member states, and ratified by 36.

The second sentence of Article 2 § 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights still provides for the death penalty (“No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law”). In my opinion, the two Protocols and their wide support suggest that this sentence has now become redundant. This is further demonstrated by the fact that abolition of the death penalty is a precondition of membership to the Council of Europe. We can clearly say that death as a punishment is no longer accepted on our continent.

The trend towards abolition is not confined to Europe alone. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly is active in lobbying Japan and the United States to abolish the death penalty, since these two countries have observer status with the Organisation. European governments are working within the United Nations and bilaterally for universal abolition, and with some success. Over half the countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

Nevertheless, the global figures relating to the death penalty are still disturbing. According to Amnesty International, at least 2 148 people were executed in 22 countries in 2005, and at least 5 186 people were sentenced to death in 53 countries. The true figures are certainly higher, as official national statistics are often hard to come by. In the same year 94% of all known executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Scientific studies have consistently failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. Violent crime rates in abolitionist countries are not on the increase.

The 4th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty will be held on 10 October 2006. This year’s theme, “The death penalty: a failure of justice” will highlight the failures of the systems which administer capital punishment, such as race and class bias. As long as the death penalty is maintained, the risk of executing the innocent can never be eliminated.

We must remind ourselves that no legal system is infallible. Since 1973 over 120 prisoners have been released from death row in the United States with evidence of their innocence. Studies in the United States have shown that innocent people have been sentenced to death and executed. Once exacted, the death penalty can never be taken back.

Work still needs to be done to sensitise and inform the public on this issue. This should include educational and awareness-raising activities against recourse to the death penalty, particularly among the media and the general public. We should demonstrate that abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights.

Thomas Hammarberg

The Russian Federation has signed but not yet ratified Protocol No. 6, although it has respected a moratorium on executions since 1996. The two countries which have not signed Protocol No. 13 are the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan. Those countries which have signed but have yet to ratify Protocol No. 13 are Albania, Armenia, France, Italy, Latvia, Moldova, Poland and Spain.

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