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Abolition of the death penalty

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"Death is not justice"

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Europe has been a de facto death penalty free zone since 1997, with the exception of Belarus which is not a Council of Europe member. When the European Convention on Human Rights was opened for signature in 1950, it provided for the possibility of imposing the death penalty in execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty was provided by law (original wording of Article 2§1). From the late 1960s, a consensus began to emerge in Europe that the death penalty seemed to serve no purpose in a civilised society governed by the rule of law and respect for human rights.

In 1982, the Council of Europe adopted the first legally binding instrument providing for the abolition of the death penalty in peace time – Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights. Forty-six member States of the Council of Europe out of 47 signed and ratified this Protocol. The Russian Federation signed but not yet ratified it. However the country has been respecting a moratorium on the death penalty since soon after its accession to the Council of Europe in 1996.

In 2003, the Council of Europe adopted the second legally binding instrument providing for the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances - Protocol No.13 to the European Convention on Human Rights. Since then, it has been ratified by 44 member states of the Council of Europe and signed by 1 other State (Armenia). Two other States( Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation) have not yet signed it.

The actions of Council of Europe bodies

The Committee of Ministers monitors the situation in member States to ensure compliance with their commitments. It exchanges views on the situation of the abolition of the death penalty every six months and asks states which have not yet signed or ratified Protocols Nos. 6 and 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights to provide information on theirs intentions. Its objective is that Europe becomes a de jure death penalty-free zone. The Committee of Ministers also issues declarations condemning executions taking place in observer States, reiterating its unequivocal opposition to capital punishment in all places and in all circumstances.

The Parliamentary Assembly has been a driving force in the movement to abolish the death penalty since the 1980s. It gradually has persuaded governments to permanently outlaw the death penalty or to commit to a moratorium on executions. The Assembly was at the origin of Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights and has since adopted successive texts: Resolution 1044 and Recommendation 1246 from 1994; Resolution 1097 and Recommendation 1302 from 1996; Resolution 1187 from 1999. The Assembly examines candidatures of states wishing to become a member of the Council of Europe; nowadays any candidate is required to abolish the death penalty and to ratify Protocol No. 6.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled since 1989 that the exposure to the pervasive and growing fear of execution - the so called “death row phenomenon” – was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court also held in 2005 that capital punishment in peacetime had come to be regarded as an unacceptable form of punishment which was no longer permissible under Article 2 of the Convention. In 2010, the Court considered that the death penalty involved a deliberate and premeditated destruction of a human being by the state authorities. In addition, since 1989, the Court has been asking member states to require firm diplomatic assurances from retentionist countries that persons to be extradited or expelled will not be sentenced to death. This principle has been followed by courts in numerous countries, also outside Europe, including Canada and South Africa.

The Council of Europe action at international level

The Council of Europe supports all initiatives aiming at a worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty, in particular the Resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly – Resolution of 20 December 2012 – as well as the campaigns for the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.

The Council of Europe is particularly attentive to individual non-European states, namely those with observer status with the Organisation, since they are deemed to share the common values. In practice, this concerns the USA and Japan, as the death penalty is not applied in Canada, Mexico and the Holy See. The Parliamentary Assembly has adopted a number of texts requiring the USA and Japan to make more efforts to take the necessary measures to institute a moratorium on executions. The last text is the Resolution 1807 from 2011. The Committee of Ministers and the Secretary General regularly intervene in individual death penalty cases (mainly in the United States), respectively through political declarations and letters asking for the clemency of the sentenced to death.

The Council of Europe participates in political debates with the authorities of Belarus, the only European country that continues to use the death penalty, with a view to introducing a moratorium in the country. The inclusion of Belarus into the EU Eastern Partnership, the opening of the Council of Europe Info point in Minsk and the adoption of Resolution 1857 (2012) by the Parliamentary Assembly which reaffirms the suspension of the special guest status for the Parliament of Belarus, contribute to the political insistence on the country to join the European family of abolitionists.


7th European Day against Death Penalty (10 October 2013)

Since 2007, the European Day against the Death Penalty is celebrated by the Council of Europe every year on 10 October,  along with the World Day against the Death Penalty. The European Union has joined this initiative as from its second edition in 2008. The aim of the European Day against the Death Penalty is to achieve a complete abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances in Europe, to support efforts by the international community to introduce a world-wide moratorium and, ultimately, universal abolition of the death penalty, to react against attempts to re-establish the death penalty, and to raise the awareness of the public about the fact that the death penalty is a travesty of justice. Every European and World Day against the Death penalty is marked by a joint declaration issued by the Council of Europe and the European Union (text of the 2013 joint declaration).

5th World Congress against Death Penalty (12 - 15  June 2013, Madrid)

The 5th World Congress against the Death Penalty was organised by the French association Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort (ECPM – Together against the Death Penalty) in partnership with the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, and with the support of the Spanish, Norwegian, Swiss and French governments. On the occasion, the Congress adopted a Final Declaration. The Council of Europe expressed its strong support to its objectives through the voice of its Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland – speech.

Other events in 2012 (more…)