Today's date:
Winter 2009

A Global Moratorium on the Death Penalty

Bernard Kouchner is the French minister of foreign and European affairs. Carl Bildt is the Swedish minister of foreign affairs.

Paris—The death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights. It is a cruel and inhuman punishment that does not belong to modern times.

We cannot remain silent when thousands of persons are still being executed or sentenced to death every year. We cannot remain silent when we see footage from public group hangings in Iran, or read about the beheading of a juvenile offender in Saudi Arabia and the execution in Texas of a man who was mentally disabled.

We are very concerned by the large number of executions in China and the marked increase in the number of executions in Japan. We are deeply disappointed when we see a country such as Liberia reintroducing the death penalty, and we urge Belarus to join the European consensus against the use of capital punishment.

The death penalty violates the very fundament of human rights, including the right to life. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment; it often entails excruciating suffering. It is irrevocable, and mistakes are irreparable. All judicial systems make mistakes, and as long as the death penalty persists, innocent people will be executed. The death penalty is a symptom of and an encouragement to a culture of violence. It is not a solution to it, as is often claimed, and it does not deter crime more than other punishments. The death penalty quite simply has no place in a modern criminal justice system.

Europe is at the forefront of efforts to abolish the death penalty. That has, of course, not always been the case. In medieval and early modern Europe, before the development of modern prison systems, the death penalty was used as a punishment for a wide range of crimes. With the emergence of nation states and the idea of citizens, however, justice became increasingly associated with equality, universality and dignity. Today it is a requirement for membership in the European Union (EU) and an issue on which Council of Europe member states have also been able to take a firm joint position. As a result, no execution has taken place on the territory of the organization’s member states since 1997.

The good news is that there is a consistent trend toward abolition of the death penalty. Progress has been dramatic in last few decades, and today more than two-thirds of all states have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.

Since the Third World Congress Against the Death Penalty, which took place in Paris in February, 2007, Albania, Cook Island, Rwanda, Uzbekistan and Argentina have abolished capital punishment. The use of the death penalty is also becoming increasingly restrained in retentionist countries. This global trend is supported by the various international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court, which, although dealing with the most heinous crimes, have no power to impose the death penalty.

There is, however, no room for complacency. The EU as well as the Council of Europe, have intensified their efforts against the death penalty in international fora such as the United Nations, where last year the General Assembly, in a historic vote, with cross-regional support, adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.

This year the General Assembly will follow up on that initiative, through the recommendations of the secretary-general. It is also an issue that the chairmanship of the Council of Europe will highlight at the UN in the framework of the Cooperation between the UN and the Council of Europe.

Governments of all countries that still retain the death penalty should show political courage and strive toward the abolition of it under all circumstances. As a first step, we call on governments to introduce a moratorium with immediate effect. We also stress the courageous and crucial role played by human rights defenders in the struggle to abolish this heinous human rights violation, and we encourage civil society to remain active. Together we must support the deep-rooted trend to universal abolition. Together we can make a difference.