Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

EU Strategy on Human Rights and Democracy: Success Against the Death Penalty? Part 2



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Note: Part 1 of this post was published on Thursday, 5 March 2015 and is available here.

The EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy and its Action Plan identified the abolition of the death penalty among key priorities of EU foreign policy vis-à-vis third countries. The implementation of this agenda came to an end in 2014. The first part of this post examined factors that influenced the implementation of the pledge to increase support to the UNGA resolution on the death penalty at the 67th session in 2012 while developing further the content of the initiative. This second part examines the implementation of the commitment to undertake targeted campaigns on the death penalty and intensify engagement with retentionist countries.

The EU decided not to carry out self-standing campaigns as it regarded that the annual efforts on the World Day against the Death Penalty on 10 October, the biannual campaign in support of the UNGA resolution were sufficient and any additional campaigns would create unnecessary fatigue. Instead, the EU decided to pursue concrete actions in those countries where the abolition of the death penalty had been identified as a priority in the EU human rights country strategies―individually tailored-made documents establishing the EU’s short- and long-term priorities in over 130 countries worldwide. The abolition of the death penalty was a common priority in human rights country strategies. Its implementation brought varied results. In most cases, success came through the right mix of tools, and in particular funding for projects aimed at reforming criminal codes, enhancing public and political support, imposing universal international standards, preventing trade of execution-related materials, and fighting tolerated extrajudicial killings and summary executions. Ultimately, however, the key was the willingness of partner countries to move toward a moratorium on the death penalty.

Targeting through the human rights country strategies was done by mixing different tools (e.g., political dialogue and funding), which yielded concrete impact in some countries. For instance, in Chad, a five-year programme supported justice sector reform. It helped deliver a new penal code that included provisions in line with international conventions ratified by Chad. In addition, the EU supported training of newly recruited security agents and a number of new detention centres were built in accordance with the international minimum standards. As a result of an effective political campaign, Chad voted in favour of the UN resolution on the moratorium of the death penalty in 2012. Another example of a positive impact is Yemen, where the EU, together with UNICEF and the Ministry of Justice, established a project on a child-friendly juvenile justice system, to support the development of a formal civil registry to facilitate proof of age. Through dialogue, the EU and UNICEF have brought individual cases of juveniles convicted to death penalty to the attention of the Yemeni authorities. As a result, in several cases executions were postponed or cancelled. Yet another successful example is Singapore, where the EU carried out numerous initiatives to convince the authorities and the society to, as a first step, abolish the death penalty for drug-related offences. As a result, in 2012, the mandatory death penalty was no longer applicable to low-level drug couriers who cooperate with police and in homicide cases where there was no intention to kill, and in 2013, for the first time, the sentences of several former death-row inmates were commuted to life imprisonment.

There are, however, several cases where the EU’s actions didn’t bring the desired impacts. In 2012-2014, a number of public statements were carried out, but both mass executions and death penalties following unfair trials with apparent political motives took place. In Iraq, a number of statements were issued in 2012-2014 and the issue was raised with authorities in Baghdad with the government and the parliament. Still, there was an increase in the use of capital punishment from 67 cases in 2011 to 129 in 2012 and to 177 in 2013. Also in 2013, Indonesia carried out its first execution in over four years. In the months that followed, four others were executed despite an EU statement calling on Indonesia to return to its previous moratorium policy. Similarly, in India, the EU reacted at the highest level to the resumption of executions after a gap of eight years. The hanging of a Pakistani soldier in Punjab on 15 November 2012 ended the unofficial moratorium on death penalty that had been in place in the country since 2008. The most worrying situation has been in the Gulf countries, where no projects are implemented and no political dialogue on death penalty takes place. The main challenge in achieving concrete results is ultimately the good will of the country in question.

Perhaps one of the biggest policy achievements in recent years have not been envisaged among priorities in the Action Plan. The Guidelines on Death Penalty, originally adopted in 1998, were updated in 2013, and the new text is a consolidation of the EU’s experience in its activities towards abolition. The revised version gives a prominent position to the EU’s stance on the abolition of the death penalty and adds relevant language from the Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy adopted in June 2012. It includes reference to all recent UNGA resolutions on the moratorium of executions, including the latest UNGA 67, which was adopted on 21 December 2012 with an unprecedented number of votes in favour. It also makes reference to the EIDHR funding of abolitionist projects as well as the Regulation (EC) No 1236/2005, which governs the export controls on certain goods which could be used for capital punishment. The new text instructs EU Heads of Mission to report regularly on the application of the death penalty in third countries and update human rights country strategies accordingly. Finally, it apprises the minimum standards paper in the light of the latest UN resolutions, reports, and opinions. The main upgrades include an update on minimum standards (ill, pregnant women, and the elderly), increased protections, links to long-term detention as form of torture, the inclusion of the language of UNGA57, and references to the trade regulation and to EIDHR. The revision has been preceded by consultations with NGOs, UN, the Council of Europe, OSCE, OAS, and AU.

The EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan expired at the end in 2014. It confirmed the EU’s commitment to better integrate human rights in all areas of its external policies, inspired the adoption of various tools to operationalise this promise, and advanced the EU’s efforts on the international scene. It has been an appreciated instrument, which demonstrates an important consensus among EU institutions and the Member States, not only on commitments but also on concrete actions. A new Action Plan is under discussion. A first indication is that death penalty will remain one of its priorities. Despite the fact that the EU Guidelines on the abolition of the death penalty are clear, they still need to be implemented on a daily basis. That’s why the second action plan should propose ambitious concrete actions to advance their implementation.

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