Brussels: Final Day of the 7th Annual World Congress Against the Death Penalty

On 1 March 2019, the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) participated in a series of roundtables and a workshop hosted by the 7th Annual World Congress Against the Death Penalty. This included the workshop “Advocacy at the UN: Using the UPR and the Treaty Bodies for Abolition”, the roundtables “Discriminatory Application of the Death Penalty Towards Women” and “Reducing the Scope of Application of the Death Penalty.”

Workshop “Advocacy at the UN: Using the UPR and the Treaty Bodies for Abolition”

This workshop focused on how the work of the Universal Periodic Examination (UPR) and the UN Treaty Bodies can be used by NGOs to influence the recommendations made to States. Anna-Karin Holmlund, Senior UN Advocate at Amnesty International, introduced the work and main objectives of the UPR. She stated that the UPR is a political body represented by all UN member States which aims to foster political commitment in tackling human rights issues on a global scale. As far as death penalty is concerned, the UPR is appointed to assess this issue in every retentionist country. It can propose recommendations, make statements, collaborate with civil society and NGOs to gather information. Ms. Holmlund mentioned the case of Belarus, the only European country in which capital punishment is a legal penalty. Significant progress has been made in the country towards the final abolition of death penalty. The UPR has issued a set of strong recommendations, which emphasise the need to change public opinion’s perception of death penalty and to foster a stronger political will to abolish it. Mona M’Bikay, Executive Director of UPR-Info, presented the case of Botswana, a retentionist country in which death penalty is not considered as a human rights violation. Several recommendations delivered by the UPR have been rejected by the government of Botswana, whereas 2 others have been accepted and implemented. Ms. M’Bikai reiterated the necessity to keep raising awareness on this issue. Lobbying and promoting a dialogue with retentionist countries is crucial to make progress, by keeping in mind the international obligations prescribed by the international law.

Roundtable “Discriminatory Application of the Death Penalty Towards Women”

This roundtable stressed the challenges of the “male dominated criminal justice system”, as defined by Delphine Lourtau, Executive Director of Death Penalty Worldwide. She remarked that the plight of women on death row has been not given enough attention, and that, differently from children, women have never been considered as a distinct group. Gender discrimination is widespread, women who face death penalty are seen as an invisible population. Angela Uwandu, Director of the Nigerian Office of Avocats Sans Frontières France, suggested multiple ways of engaging with the women’s rights movements, such as advocacy visits to women’s rights organisations, the writing of global reports, pamphlets and the issuance of statistics on the issue. Agnès Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary arbitrary killings, reiterated that a gender perspective is crucial to address death penalty towards women. She asserted that many women who have committed murder are sitting on death row. Most of these women have killed their violent partner particularly in the context of child marriage. For this reason, they are victims of arbitrary processes. Ms. Callamard concluded her speech by reminding that making these women visible could bring a strong impact on this despicable practice of discriminatory application of the death penalty towards women.

Roundtable “Reducing the Scope of Application of the Death Penalty”

This conference aimed to recall States’ legal obligations and to reveal solutions to reduce the scope of application of death penalty in specific countries. Neetika Vishwanath, Research Associate at the Centre on the Death Penalty in Delhi, India, thoroughly discussed death penalty under international law. She mentioned the Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which maintains that “every human being has the inherent right to life” and that retentionist countries impose death penalty for the “most serious crimes.” She pointed out that minors who are less that 18 years of age and pregnant women cannot be sentenced to death, and that the procedure for the imposition of the death penalty must be clear and based on convincing evidence. Furthermore, capital punishment cannot be imposed if fair trial rights are violated and that during the procedure adequate legal assistance is to be provided at all stages. Speaking of India, Ms. Vishwanath stated that the country is moving towards a palpable rise of death penalty, which is imposed more easily than before. Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, Director of Iran Human Rights, presented the case of Iran. Iran has the highest number of executions per capita in the world, despite a significant reduction in 2018, and the main charges are murder, rape, drug-related crimes, and the so-called “corruption of earth”, namely economic corruption as prescribed in the Article 286 of the Islamic Penal Code. Mr. Amiry-Moghaddam stressed the fact that death penalty is not a deterrent, it is a tool used to spread fear. For example, drug trafficking has increased in recent times, and only international pressure has brought about a reduction of executions linked to drug-related offences.

Andrew Khoo, a lawyer active in Malaysia, explained the strong link between the abolition of death penalty and religion in Malysia. A new government has pledged to totally abolish capital punishment. Little progress has been made, even if public demonstrations and the media have raised awareness on the matter. Mohammad Musa Mahmodi, Executive Director of the Independent Human Rights Commission, described how widespread violence in Afghanistan has been nourishing capital punishment as another form of violence. By underlying the fact that throughout the region death penalty is a common practice, Mr. Mahmodi affirmed that death penalty is not acceptable in any context, and that legislative reform is the key to abolish it.

The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) welcomes the outcome and all of the recommendations that have characterised the 7th Annual World Congress Against the Death Penalty. ECDHR acknowledges that progress has been made and that there is still much more to do and accomplish. However, we were surprised that no panellist at any of the events mentioned, or specifically addressed, the death penalty in the Arab peninsula which continues to be an important tool at the hands of these governments.

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