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6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty

Oslo , 

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Today 140 countries around the world – over two thirds – have abolished the death penalty in legislation or practice.

Last year, five more joined the list.

And it is fair to say that, globally, we are seeing a gradual but still committed shift towards the elimination of capital punishment.

We should be pleased about that.

But, as many of you know, last year saw some dangerous trends, too.

A spike in executions, albeit in a limited number of countries.

The resumption of executions in several others.

An increase in deaths for drug offences, including of minors;

And, still, 50% of death sentences handed out on one continent – Asia.

2015 was a year to shake us: we must be ever vigilant against backsliding; we have to keep pushing forward.

That is why I am so grateful to our Norwegian hosts, as well as the French and Australian Governments, for bringing us together. And thanks, of course, go to the ECPM and World Coalition against the Death Penalty.

And it is so important that national human rights institutions play their role. Because, for opposition to capital punishment to endure – including through times of insecurity – it has to be deep rooted in a society. A nation must feel it – you cannot impose this from the outside.

Ladies and Gentlemen I want to use my brief time today to talk about some facts.

You all know the many different arguments against capital punishment – ethical, social, financial even. You don’t need me to repeat them.

But I do want to stress one basic truth which is sometimes downplayed in this debate.

There is no body of credible evidence to suggest that capital punishment deters crime. 

None.

Across the world men and women – and children – are being executed on the basis of an unproven assumption: that it will make their societies safer. 

While, on the contrary, study after study says the same thing:

No one can prove that the death penalty works – still, after all this time.

You can compare Hong Kong, which abolished capital punishment in the 1990s, with Singapore, which massively increased its usage during the same period.

You can compare the United States with Canada, when only the former restored it.

Within the United States, you can compare those states which still use the death penalty with those states which don’t.

In every case, what do you find?

No detectable effect of capital punishment on violent crime. 

For this reason – as much as any other – it is up to democratic nations, old and new, to lead the fight against the death penalty.

Because democratic government should be rational government. In Europe we got rid of government by superstition and myth during the Enlightenment! Democracy, by contrast, embraces reason. And the only reasonable conclusion is that we build our justice systems on evidence and fact.

Today I therefore repeat my call for the Federal Government of the United States to end its commitment to the death penalty.

President Obama: what a legacy that would be?

It is incomprehensible that one of the world’s leading democracies – built on the promise of individual liberty – still tolerates this medieval punishment.

I commend the numerous state authorities who have either abolished capital punishment or made steps towards it in recent years.

And I urge the White House to look around at the other death-penalty-nations and ask itself: do we really want to be part of this club? 

In Europe, too, there is more to be done.

The Council of Europe takes great pride in having been a driving force in making our continent death-penalty-free for more than 800 million people.

Two international treaties have been central to this: Protocol No.6 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the death penalty in times of peace, and Protocol No.13 which prohibits it in all circumstances.

In the past nineteen years no death sentence has been carried out on the territories of our 47 member states.

But it is also true that, while the Russian Federation, a member of our Organisation, upholds a moratorium on the death penalty, it has yet to abolish it by law.

Two other member states – Armenia and Azerbaijan – have still not ratified Protocol No. 13, prohibiting the death penalty in all circumstances.

And we still have the situation in Belarus: the last remaining country on European soil to carry out capital punishment – its biggest obstacle to becoming a Council of Europe member state.

We continue to engage with the authorities – I remain hopeful.

And my message to Minsk is this:

The destination is abolition.

The journey almost certainly involves a moratorium on death sentences.

But there also has to be a first step.

Commit to stopping executions as a sign of willingness and intent, and the Council of Europe will meet you.

Let us work together until, finally, we can declare Europe a death-penalty-free zone.

Ladies and gentleman, it is an ambition I hope to move towards during my time as Secretary General.

And, in my lifetime, I hope to see a global moratorium, too.

It falls to democratic nations to lead the way – to show that all those who still harbor the false view that “death is justice” that they are on the wrong side of history.

I commend all of you for your efforts towards this end – not least the national bodies who sow opposition to capital punishment into the fabric of our societies.

Thank you very much.