“We believe… that every human life matters, no matter how it is used, no matter how many mistakes a person makes. We believe that a State should not dispose of the life of a human being. We believe that the response to a crime must never be another crime… We believe in justice not revenge.”
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
Opening the Conference on behalf of the President of the European Parliament, Mr Tajani, the Parliament’s Vice President, Mr Pavel Telička, welcomed Ministers, members of the diplomatic corps and delegates to the European Parliament. He congratulated all those present for their tireless efforts to abolish capital punishment, underlined the commitment to abolition of the European Union, and welcomed the fact that some governments that have not yet abolished the death penalty will participate in the Congress and engage in its discussions. Mr Telicka spoke of the universal values that unite those who fight for abolition. Though Protocol 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was the first legally binding instrument to abolish the death penalty in peacetime, the abolition movement is global and not, as some claim, inspired by Europe. He looked forward to the day when no country on the European continent would practise the death penalty, as Belarus still does, and re-emphasized the European Parliament’s absolute commitment to abolition “in all cases and under all circumstances”, and full implementation of the EU Guidelines on the death penalty1. In closing, he wished the delegates a successful and fruitful conference. Welcoming the Congress on behalf of the European Union, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms Federica Mogherini, said that she is proud that Europe is the world’s largest space free of capital punishment. She affirmed that no State should condemn any citizen to death, however serious his or her crime: the response to a crime must never be another crime because “we believe in justice, not revenge”. Capital punishment isn’t rooted in a country’s culture, as some say, for laws and culture can change. She underlined the progress that has been achieved, noting that 31 countries have abolished the death penalty since the first World Congress was held in 2001. Mr Didier Reynders, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Belgium, began by quoting Albert Camus: “There will not be sustained peace either in men’s hearts or in society’s values until death has been made illegal”. Confirming Belgium’s commitment to abolition in the 30th anniversary year of the second Optional Protocol (OP) to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Mr Reynders highlighted the discriminatory nature of capital punishment, which is imposed disproportionately on the poor and on minorities, and underlined the effect on the relatives and children of those sentenced to death.
“The death penalty is frequently applied in a discriminatory way. In particular, those who are most poor, most vulnerable economically, are disproportionately affected. Other groups, including foreigners, racial and ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and women, are also impacted disproportionately. It is crucial to keep in mind the point of view of victims, understood broadly. The current information we have suggests that the death penalty creates victims and can affect whole communities, across many generations.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium
Ambassador Christian Meuwly, Head of Switzerland’s Mission to the EU, on behalf of Pascale Baeriswyl, State Secretary of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Swiss Confederation, reminded the Congress that it is vital to raise public awareness, especially among young people. He explained the three main objectives of Switzerland’s 2017-2019 Action Plan to achieve universal abolition of the death penalty and commended Malaysia for its decision to abolish capital punishment, Pakistan for acquitting and releasing Aasiya Noreen (Asia Bibi), who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy, and Iran for reducing penalties for drug offences. Agreeing with former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon that “the death penalty has no place in the 21st century”, he called on the 38 States that still apply the death penalty to change their laws and join other States in abolishing it.
“The death penalty violates the most fundamental human rights through the delay that precedes execution and the years passed in isolation, which are forms of psychological torture inflicted on the condemned and his or her loved ones.”
State Secretary of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Swiss Confederation
Audun Halvorsen, State Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway, recalled the last World Conference held in Oslo three years ago. He agreed that it is important to engage young people, who are the next generation of abolitionists, and underlined the value of rehabilitating those who commit crimes and reintegrating them into society, which the death penalty renders impossible. Noting that sexual minorities may still be sentenced to death in certain countries, he deplored the fact that, in 2019, people can be executed because of who they love.
“Justice systems should ensure that perpetrators of crimes are held accountable – but the underlying principle should also be one of rehabilitation and reintroduction into society. The death penalty makes this impossible. It is absolute, irreversible and irreparable.”
State Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway
In welcoming the delegates to the 7th World Congress, the Executive Director of ECPM praised their commitment and passion. Mr Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan declared that, in a few years, he was confident that the UN Secretary General “will declare a world free of the death penalty”. He noted the reasons why some people remain unconvinced by arguments against capital punishment. He invited them to engage in an open-minded discussion with abolitionists. Mr Chenuil-Hazan said that proponents of capital punishment claim that it is validated by public opinion, or sanctioned by culture, or a matter of State sovereignty. To the first of these claims, he replied that, in reality, ‘public opinion follows, in every country, in every continent’. The case for abolition is based on principle and in the long term honourable and honest positions are persuasive. He also took issue with the view that culture is immovable. Europe, now a leader of abolition, was historically an avid supporter of execution. It was practising capital punishment during the Tang dynasty when China (temporarily) abolished capital punishment. Latin America was the first continent to largely eliminate its practice. In Africa, its adoption was largely due to European colonization. While praising the progress that the abolition movement has made, Mr Chenuil-Hazan underlined that campaigners must not be content with suspending capital punishment because moratoria leave open the risk that executions might return. He ended by declaring that “For some of you life is worth nothing, but for us nothing, nothing, is worth more than life” Ms Aminata Niakate, a member of ECPM’s Executive Board, reminded the Congress that nine young men, after being subjected to torture, had been executed in Egypt the previous week. Looking further forward, she hoped that one day there would be no need for abolition conferences. “Just as the hummingbird, according to the story, brought water drop by drop to put out a fire”, she said, every campaigner counts. “We cannot abandon these men on death row to their last meal, their last cigarette, watching the clock.” Speaking on video, His Holiness the Pope declared to the Congress that the life and dignity of every person must be protected without exception. In addition, every person should have a chance to change, to repent and be forgiven. In an era in which detention systems are constantly improving, we must fight so that no more lives are lost but, on the contrary, “won for the common good of society”.
“For believers, a human being has been created in the image of God. But whether you are a believer or not a believer, each life is precious and its dignity needs to be safeguarded without exception. The death penalty is therefore a very serious violation of every person’s right to life.”
His Holiness Pope Francis
The Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, then spoke, also on video. He welcomed the progress of the UN General Assembly resolution for a moratorium on the death sentence, first adopted in 2008 and approved by the largest majority ever in 2018 (A/RES/71/187). Mr Guterres said that there is still work to do, nevertheless. He encouraged the Congress and all those who campaign for abolition to maintain their efforts. Ms Vanessa Place then read a poem that satirized and condemned the insensibility and greed of the judicial system in the face of the suffering of prisoners sentenced to death. Three speeches were then delivered by Navanethem Pillay, President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty (ICDP); on behalf of Louise Mushikiwabo, General Secretary of the International Organization de la Francophonie (OIF); and by Aramis Ayala, State Attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, USA. Ms Pillay explained that she and her colleagues in the International Commission against the Death Penalty have been examining the different strategies that have successfully led to abolition. In Mongolia and France, for example, abolition was achieved through personal leadership. In South Africa and Guatemala, the country’s courts led the way. In Rwanda, Haiti, Cambodia and Timor Leste, momentum for abolition was created by civil war and genocide. While most of Europe and Latin America, and now most African countries, no longer apply the death penalty, Ms Pillay highlighted the risks of recidivism, and its continued widespread use in large areas of Asia as well as the United States. She reminded the Congress that the inclusion of a sovereignty clause in the UN’s recent moratorium resolution represented an attempt to remove human rights from the legal case for abolition, framing it solely in terms of criminal law, and stressed that the eventual success of the abolitionist movement will depend on continuing to create new strategies and narratives and concerted effort by States, civil society and international organizations – and, indeed, all of society.
Gatherings like the World Congress… are important for the abolitionist movement as they provide a platform for different actors to meet, for trends to be identified, new strategies to be discussed, new actors to be engaged…” “The abolition of the death penalty is only achievable through the combined efforts of States, of civil society organizations, of international government organizations – and, literally, all of us…”
former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty
The speech made on behalf of Louise Mushikiwabo, General Secretary of the International Organization de la Francophonie (OIF), highlighted the role of civil society. It affirmed the OIF’s commitment to universal abolition, and welcomed the fact that three quarters of the countries on the African continent have taken or are taking steps to abolish the death penalty. Ms Aramis Ayala spoke of her experience as a State Attorney in Florida, where the death penalty is still legal, She asked the Congress to consider what justice looks like. Underlining that justice must be objective and fair, never driven by emotion, she declared that as an attorney she is bound by the law but will never request the death penalty, even though she is required to consider it as an option, because capital punishment is morally unacceptable, is exercised in a racially discriminatory manner, is unjustifiably expensive for the state and taxpayers, and imposes intolerable suffering on condemned prisoners, their families, and prison staff.
“The costs associated with the death penalty are astronomical, yet they’re not borne by any of those who make the decision to perpetuate this failed policy. “…The post traumatic stress associated with the responsibility of killing human beings and the difficulty processing one’s own physical contribution to the death of another must never be ignored.”
State Attorney, Florida, United States
The singer, songwriter and composer Typh Barrow then sang two of her songs. There followed presentations by government representatives from Sri Lanka, the Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Burkina Faso, The Gambia, and Morocco. Each country has taken or is expecting to take steps towards abolition or a moratorium on capital punishment. Ms Thalatha Atukorale, Minister of Justice and Prison Reform of Sri Lanka, began by denying the truth of press reports that Sri Lanka might resume executions after a moratorium of 40 years. She declared that the moratorium remains in place but requested the international community to help the authorities fight organized criminal gangs and drugs cartels without recourse to the most severe legal sanctions. Mr Jean Claude Gakosso, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Congo, announced that the Government of Congo had removed the death penalty from the country’s new and progressive 2015 constitution. A moratorium was already in place and no executions had taken place in Congo for 33 years. The public had been convinced of its ineffectiveness. He affirmed his country’s commitment to abolition at international and regional level. Congo supports adding a Protocol on the death penalty to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Cheick Sako, Minister of Justice of the Republic of Guinea, clarified that the death penalty has not been formally abolished in Guinea. However, it has been removed from the Criminal Code and other legal texts and is therefore de facto inapplicable. The sentences of prisoners condemned to death have been commuted to life imprisonment. Mr Sako explained that, although the government is ready to ratify the second Optional Protocol and a de facto moratorium has been in place since 2002, public opinion continues to favour capital punishment on security grounds. He asked the Congress to understand that each country’s situation is specific and must be allowed to manage its affairs accordingly.
“Why did we do it this way? In effect, one has to take account of the specific circumstances of each country while respecting the principle of abolition. In other words, abolition is irreversible, but we need to be aware as responsible politicians that we must bring the people and decision-makers with us, even via a windy road, to get to this goal.”
Minister of Justice of the Republic of Guinea
Bessolé René Bagoro, the Minister of Justice, Human Rights and Civic Promotion of Burkina Faso, announced that Burkina Faso had abolished capital punishment in January 2018. Recognizing that this decision had been sensitive because of public opinion, he thanked civil society for its support and urged States that continue to apply the death penalty to abolish it, saying “We will back you in your efforts”. Abubacarr M. Tambadou, Attorney General and Minister of Justice in The Gambia, explained that his country had first abolished the death penalty in 1993, only to reintroduce it in 1995 after a coup d’état. The Gambia’s constitution stated that the subject should be reviewed after ten years, but a review did not occur until 2018, after President Yahya Jammeh was defeated in elections and the present government took office. A moratorium has been in place since 2018. Because capital punishment is enshrined in the constitution, to abolish it would require a constitutional amendment, which is difficult to achieve. Mr Tambadou nevertheless assured the Congress that the government supports abolition.
“Victor Hugo predicted [the abolition of capital punishment] in Actes et Paroles… Of the 18th century, he said that it was ‘part of its glory to have abolished torture’. The 19th century, he said, ‘will abolish capital punishment’. In the end, the 19th century abolished slavery. The 20th century was to be the century of male-female equality. It is therefore now time for the 21st century to be the century that achieves universal abolition of the death penalty!”
Executive Director of ECPM
Finally, Mr Mohamed Aujjar, Minister of Justice of Morocco, noted that Morocco’s constitution affirms the right to life, indicating its commitment to abolition. Moreover, no executions have been carried out since 1993. The new criminal code will also restrict the number of crimes that are subject to capital punishment. Though the Minister said that he is personally in favour of abolition, he also recognized that more groundwork is required to pave the way for reform and he praised civil society organizations for resisting the influence of conservative ideas at regional and international level. Mr Ndume Olatushani then spoke. A former prisoner who had spent 28 years in prison, including 20 years on death row, in Tennessee. Mr Olatushani spoke movingly about life in prison and described how he had become a painter. Taking painting classes had saved his life, he said. It had given him hope, something to wake up for, especially after his mother was killed in a car accident. Later, his art attracted attention to his case, and led more people to help him seek a review. He now works with children, teaching them to paint and how to protect themselves from the kinds of problems he has experienced. He thanked everyone present for their efforts to end the death penalty, but stressed how necessary it is to keep fighting. The opening ceremony was brought to a close by Nouzha Skalli, a Member of the Scientific Committee of the 7th World Congress and a former Minister of solidarity, family and social development in Morocco, and Robert Badinter, Honorary Chair of ECPM and former Minister of Justice in France. Ms Skalli encouraged Africa to become the next abolitionist continent. She said the path to abolition is the path of progress. While emphasizing that the overall trends are positive, she drew attention to the slow progress that Morocco has made towards abolition, hindered by its patriarchal system, the oppression of and violence against women, and the continued legal problem that persons may be condemned to death on religious grounds. Mr Badinter spoke to the Congress by video. Regretting that he could not be present personally due to illness, he urged the Congress to avoid euphoria. Many of the largest and most powerful nations, including China, the United States, Russia and India, retain the death penalty, as do Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is critical to work with activists in these countries, and indispensable to protest against all and every execution.
“The task is incomplete and difficult, but the Movement depends on you”
Mr Robert Badinter