Abolition of the death penalty: the Council of Europe leading the way

4th World Congress against the Death Penalty,

Geneva, 24-26 February 2010



by Renate Wohlwend,

Representative of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe


The tool of diplomacy used by Europe towards USA and Japan


I should like to begin by thanking the World Coalition against the death penalty for organising such a wonderful, energising gathering, and for giving me the opportunity to address the Congress as part of this illustrious panel. I accept the honour of addressing you today on the understanding that it really belongs to the body that I represent, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. This Assembly brings together delegations from the national parliaments of all 47 member states of the Council of Europe. It is proud to be the driving force of a great political movement that has made almost all of Europe a death penalty free zone:


-           It was the Assembly which launched the idea of the two additional protocols to the European Convention on Human Rights banning the death penalty, i.e. Protocols 6 and 13;


-           and it was the Assembly which, as of 1994, made use of its power to block the accession of new member states to the Council of Europe in order to make a moratorium on executions and a commitment to completely abolish the death penalty within a reasonable time a pre-condition for accession.


I just said that “almost” all of Europe is a death-penalty free zone: one European country has not yet joined the family of the Council of Europe, namely the Republic of Belarus. One of the reasons is precisely the refusal of the current regime to abolish the death penalty, or at least to introduce a moratorium.


In June 2009, the Assembly reaffirmed its commitment against the death penalty. It subjected the granting of the “special guest status” to the Belarusian parliament to the prior introduction of a moratorium. The special guest status is a kind of parliamentary observer status seen as a stepping-stone to full membership. I introduced this condition myself by way of an amendment to a more general resolution on relations with Belarus, together with some colleagues of the Assembly’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.


Five of my colleagues – Andreas Gross from Switzerland, Franz Eduard Kühnel from Austria and Tugrul Türkes from Turkey are here today. I warmly welcome their presence as a token of support for abolition, accross national and party-political boundaries.


The refusal of the special guest status for the parliament of Belarus, pending a moratorium on executions, brings to mind the fact that two of the Council of Europe’s existing observer states that are of particular concern to us this afternoon, namely the United States of America and Japan, are still executing the death penalty today.


According to the statutory texts of the Council of Europe, observer states are expected to share the common values upheld by the Council of Europe, namely the respect for human rights, democracy and the the rule of law. These values are permanently evolving. When the United States and Japan became observers with the Council of Europe in 1995 and 1996 respectively, the strong European consensus against the death penalty was just beginning to emerge.


Right now, it can safely be said that the death penalty is considered in Europe as a violation of human rights, both in terms of the right to life (Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights) and the prohibition of torture (Article 3). As early as 1989, the European Court of Human Rights found that conditions on death row constituted “inhuman and degrading treatment” within the meaning of Article 3.


This means that States Parties to the European Convention on Human Rights cannot extradite a person to a retentionist state, or provide any judicial assistance in murder cases, unless an assurance is given that the suspect will not be subjected to the death penalty. If Oussama Bin Laden were to be caught – say, here in Geneva – Switzerland could not extradite him to the United States without such a specific assurance. This goes to show just how much international legal cooperation, also in the fight against terrorism or other forms of international organised crime, is hindered by the retention of the death penalty in the countries which are Europe’s natural partners in this important struggle.


As you can see, shared fundamental values are not some kind of sentimental luxury, but important preconditions for mutually beneficial international cooperation. To explain this at every opportunity in our international relations – not least at the parliamentary level – is in my view a more promising approach than waving the threat of “sanctions”. In this sense, I slightly disagree with the language in the “scenario” for this debate, which speaks of putting “pressure” on authorities. I do not think that “pressure” is the right word.


Of course we in the Parliamentary Assembly have already thought of recommending the withdrawal of the observer status enjoyed by the United States and Japan at the Council of Europe. But would this really further the goal of abolition? In my view, such a “sanction” would merely strengthen the hand of retentionist political forces who could exploit Europe’s perceived arrogant attitude. But I am open to learn from arguments that our American and Japanese colleagues might raise in this respect. I am here this week to collect information and arguments for my upcoming report to the Assembly on the progress of abolition in the Council’s observer states.    


The European experience of abolition is undeniably a success story. In my view, we can “sell” it more effectively if we point out the positive outcome of abolition by giving concrete examples.


The parliamentary seminars the Assembly organised in Washington/DC and Springfield/Illinois as well as in Tokyo some years ago are examples for this strategy. At the seminar in Springfield, one of the American participants was a brilliant, dynamic member of  the State legislature’s Committee on Judiciary whose name you can probably guess ... yes, Barack Obama contributed to our seminar. He pleaded eloquently in favour of maintaining the moratorium on executions that the Governor of Illinois had decreed in view of the large number of wrongful convictions which were discovered at that time. Obama’s supporters now expect him to bring about real change, also to the cruel, racially and socially biased practice of capital punishment which is such a stain on this great country.


Similarly, one of our partners in the Japanese abolitionist caucus is now Minister of Justice. I warmly congratulate Keiko Chiba on her appointment. I dare express my hope, and that of my colleagues in the Parliamentary Assembly, that her appointment is a signal for progress, also for the abolition of the death penalty.


The argument often put forward against abolition is that “public opinion” favours executions. But we all know that the outcome of opinion polls depends on the way the questions are asked, and on the day’s news. The European experience has shown that abolition is an issue where parliamentarians must lead, not follow public opinion. In Europe, no governing party has lost an election due to abolition! The prior introduction of a moratorium on executions has helped to reassure the general public that stopping executions does not mean rising violent crime. To the contrary, as the example of Canada another observer state of the Council of Europe shows: violent crime has actually decreased after abolition. Executions are killings in the name of the people, they contribute to the brutalisation of society, to the culture of death and violence that we all strive to overcome.


I do not intend to continue enumerating the arguments against the death penalty. The point I want to make instead, to finish my presentation, is that in most of Europe, following the lead of courageous politicians such as Robert Badinter, who is also with us here in Geneva, the general public has now embraced the abolition of the death penalty. Only the “loony right” in a few countries still favours executions, the political mainstream has moved on. The Council of Europe is at the disposal of its observer states to assist them – and any other interested nations – in bringing about a similar process, by sharing its positive experience with ridding itself of this inhuman, degrading punishment that violates the most fundamental human right – the right to life.