Principles in the firing line? The EU and the death penalty

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

208934_death_penalty_2015_-_video_stills_2.jpg [Amnesty International]

Inserting counter-terrorism into European Union foreign policy could undermine the EU’s stance against the death penalty, warns Iverna McGowan.

Iverna McGowan is acting director of Amnesty International European Institutions Office.

Today, Amnesty International released its annual review of the death penalty worldwide, with much of it making for grim reading. A dark trend was starkly evident last year across the world: governments using the death penalty in a seemingly misguided and politically-motivated attempt to tackle internal dissent, crime, or security threats – real or perceived.

A sharp spike in the handing down of death sentences was recorded in 2014, up more than 500 on the previous year to at least 2,466. This rise can be attributed to governments using the death penalty as a political tool. In Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, the death penalty was used by those trying to silence dissent, or based on so-called security-related or terrorism charges.

Saudi Arabia, comfortably ranking amongst the world’s top five executioners with at least 90 executions recorded, detained people supporting or taking part in protests against the state. Incidents have been recorded of people being threatened or charged with the death penalty based on vaguely worded security charges relating to their activism. In Egypt, in the face of internal political instability, courts imposed hundreds of death sentences. Pakistan put more than 50 people to death, threatening to send thousands more to the gallows, after lifting a six-year moratorium on the execution of civilians following the Taliban terror attack on a school in Peshawar last December.

The use of the death penalty is a human rights abuse, violating the right to life. It is the ultimate cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment, in any and all circumstances. We now also know that it is no more a deterrent to crime than a prison sentence, demonstrated in multiple studies including by the United Nations – a factor that states continuing to use the death penalty in the attempt to address (or appear to address) crime rates seem to have ignored. Jordan for example ended an eight-year moratorium in December, putting 11 murder convicts to death, in an alleged move to end a surge in violent crime.

European Union

At Amnesty International, we’ve campaigned for a global end to the death penalty since the 1970s. And it’s not all bad news, as thankfully most of the world appears to agree with us that it should be abolished, including the European Union (EU) and its member states.

Today, 140 states are abolitionist in law or practice, including all EU countries. The absolute ban on the death penalty is enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. And the current holder of the EU Presidency, Latvia, was the last member state to abolish capital punishment in war time in 2012.

As such, sitting in Brussels, the EU reader, it would seem, has good reason to be proud that the Union and institutions have made ending executions worldwide central to its foreign policy. But, dig a little deeper and it seems that elements of EU foreign policy could be undermining this principled approach.

In the wake of the horrific Paris attacks, discussions around counter-terrorism policies and practices were swiftly moved to the top of the EU’s agenda. In order to tackle terror threats, there has been a focus on “international cooperation”, mainstreaming counter-terrorism into EU foreign policy.

As part of this, there has been a push for “targeted and upgraded” security and counter-terrorism dialogues with, for example, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. And work is underway to extend such dialogues to countries including Egypt and Jordan. Yes, dialogues with those very same very countries using the death penalty as a matter of course.

In the wake of the sharp spike in death sentences, and closer security cooperation with many state perpetrators, the burning question the EU needs to answer is whether and how it is making sure partners stop using the death penalty. A commitment to the abolition of the death penalty has so far been seemingly absent from these counter-terror discussions.

Equally, the EU must question whether such cooperation risks more people, including peaceful activists, being arrested, tortured, sentenced to death, and executed in relation to so-called security or terrorism charges. Lessons should be learned from EU cooperation to tackle drug trafficking, where the EU has at least acknowledged that legal, financial or other technical assistance to third countries should not contribute to the use of the death penalty.

By leaving these questions unanswered, the EU could inadvertently be contributing to more people being executed. This could place all of its good progress into great peril, and make for further bad news in 2015.

>>Read: Belarus and Ukranian rebels keep death penalty alive in Europe

Amnesty International

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