Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

EU Strategy on Human Rights and Democracy: Success Against the Death Penalty? Part 1



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The European Union (EU) has a long-standing principled position against the death penalty. The abolition of the death penalty is a pre-condition to join the EU, and all countries on the continent, except for Belarus, are complete or de facto abolitionists. The absolute ban on the death penalty is enshrined both in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, the latter to which the EU is in the process of acceding. As a reflection of this commitment, the EU has prioritised the fight against the death penalty in its external relations. The first ever EU human rights guidelines established a policy framework for the EU to act in this field. The EU intervenes on individual cases and towards moratoria on the application of the death penalty and, eventually, its abolition. It pursues its policy mainly through statements and demarches but also via funding of NGO projects that range from the monitoring of the use of the death penalty training, advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns to assistance to prisoners and support for constitutional reform. The EU is also the driver behind the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Not surprisingly, the abolition of the death penalty figures among the priorities in the 2012 EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy, which states that “the death penalty constitutes serious violations of human rights and human dignity, and that the EU will continue its long-standing campaign against it.” The Action Plan accompanying the EU Strategic Framework has a dedicated section on the abolition of the death penalty, which envisages three actions to be carried out in 2012-2014: (1) to support the UNGA resolution on the death penalty at the 67th session in 2012 in order to increase support among states while developing further the content of the initiative; (2) to ensure EU input to the World Congress against the death penalty; and (3) to undertake targeted campaigns on the death penalty and intensify engagement with retentionist countries.

This two-part blog post provides an assessment on the implementation of these commitments and analyses factors that influenced the success or failure of their implementation. The first part examines the EU’s efforts to gather maximum votes in favour of the 2012 UNGA resolution on the moratorium of the death penalty and advance the substance of the text. The second part examines the EU’s commitment to increase cooperation with retentionist countries, including via targeted campaigns, as well as provides remarks on other actions not specifically included in the Action Plan. This post deliberately omits the EU’s support to the World Congress against the Death Penalty, which took place in Madrid in June 2013, for the reason that while this was an important event that gathered abolitionists and retentionists to discuss issues of common interest, it didn’t conclude with any tangible deliverables.

Overall, the implementation of the first action was successful, although some shortfalls appeared as well. The achievements were influenced by a change in the general approach from the ad hoc to a more strategic and proactive outreach, but there were also shortcomings due primarily to the need for maintaining a realistic approach and secure minimum progress at the cost of more ambitious goals. Finally, the willingness, or lack thereof, in the targeted countries was a crucial factor influencing EU’s actions.

The EU committed itself to support the UNGA 67 resolution in 2012 on the death penalty in order to increase support among states while developing further the content of the initiative. The 2012 EU Annual Human Rights Report proclaimed that this action was accomplished as the EU participated in the cross-regional alliance that led to the adoption of the resolution on 20 December 2012 calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. The resolution was adopted with an unprecedented number of 111 votes in favour―an increase compared to similar resolutions in 2007, 2008, and 2010―41 against, and 34 abstentions. In favour of the resolution were most abolitionist countries: 88 for all crimes, six for ordinary crimes, and 13 in practice. More significantly, four retentionist countries also backed the resolution: Chad, Guatemala, Somalia, and South Sudan. Equally importantly, the Central African Republic, Chad, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Tunisia changed their previous votes and supported the call for a moratorium. The change of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea from opposition in 2010 to abstention in 2012 was another sign of progress. For the first time, Mongolia, Samoa, and Somalia joined as co-sponsors, reflecting the cross-regional support for ending use of capital punishment.

There were many factors that contributed to this success, many of which were a result of a strategic change in the EU advocacy and outreach approach comparing to former years. Intensive lobbying started in early autumn, which was much sooner than before when contact was established on the eve of the vote in the Third UNGA Committee. The campaign to gain support for the resolution included two (not one, as previously) rounds of demarches targeting retentionist countries. The first one took place before the vote in the Third Committee and the second one before the plenary vote. To maximise their impact, demarches were carried out simultaneously in the capitals, New York and Geneva. Additional diplomatic contacts targeted ‘swing countries,’ such as Indonesia and Tunisia, who had not declared their vote. Furthermore, there were altogether 91 co-sponsors from the beginning of the process, which allowed for transparent and inclusive work and prevented last minute amendments.

Although the resolution received the highest support in its history, there were also a few disappointments for the EU. While, unsurprisingly, 36 retentionist countries voted against the resolution, the same vote was cast by five abolitionists in practice: Brunei, Grenada, Myanmar, Swaziland, and Tonga. In addition, compared to the vote in 2010, Bahrain, Dominica, and Oman changed their abstention to vote against the resolution, while Maldives, Namibia, and Sri Lanka went from a vote in favour to an abstention. The reasons for these changes varied depending on the country. For example, Brunei and Myanmar opposed the resolution due to attachment to the principles of non-interference in internal affairs. Others, like Papua New Guinea, linked their vote to internal developments on the death penalty, where the parliament’s amendments to the criminal code reintroduced the death penalty for a wide category of crimes. Yet others, such as Mauretania and Morocco, indicated they would vote in favour of the resolution but changed their stand at the actual vote.

The resolution reaffirmed previous UNGA resolutions 62/149 in 2007, 63/168 in 2008, and 65/206 in 2010. It called upon all states to: respect international standards on safeguards protecting the rights of those facing the death penalty; progressively restrict the use of the death penalty and reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed; and establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty; and those states which have abolished the death penalty should not to reintroduce it. New elements in the 2012 text included more detailed wording on what information states should make available on the use of the death penalty; a specific call not to impose capital punishment on pregnant women or those under 18 at the time of the offence; and a call to consider acceding to or ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The proposed text of the resolution included only minor improvements and therefore was more agreeable to states. This minimalist approach was a deliberate move as the EU's chief goal was to receive the maximum votes in support even at cost of abandoning any ambitious changes.

The EU achieved its goal of securing higher support for the resolution. However, this was done at the expense of its text, which did not reflect any breakthrough advances. This was a deliberate step-by-step approach that favoured gaining ownership of the resolution among a larger number of states, and then building on this consent in the next years to progress on the content.

Part 2 of this post will be published on Monday, 9 March 2015.

Please note: The views expressed in this contribution are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of EU institutions and services.