BY CHRISTIAN TURNER
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the last executions to take place in the UK. At 8am on 13 August 1964, two men were hanged in different prisons in Manchester and Liverpool, for the murder of the same man. Two months later a new Government was elected and in 1965, Parliament suspended the death penalty, abolishing it in 1969.
This was not an easy process. At the time it was abolished in the UK, the death penalty enjoyed widespread public support. Parliament decided to act contrary to the popular view, in response to a number of high profile cases where innocent people were executed. The UK Parliament took the view that in States where capital punishment exists, sooner or later innocent people will be killed because of mistakes or flaws in the justice system. Ultimately, it was the responsibility of Government to take the lead in protecting its citizens.
Today, the 10th October, is ‘World Day against the Death Penalty’. Since 2003, people globally have used this day to express their opposition to capital punishment. We in the UK believe the death penalty has no place in the modern world. We believe it undermines human dignity; there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value; and any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable.
No one can seriously argue that errors can be excluded from any penal system. Over 140 people have now been exonerated from death row in the United States. The UK does not believe that the execution of innocent people can ever be justified. We also believe the use of capital punishment is incompatible with human rights and human dignity. It violates the right to life, the most basic of all human rights; the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhumane of degrading treatment or punishment; and undermines the human dignity which should be inherent to every human being.
As to its deterrent effect, there is no convincing evidence of this. This should be clear when you consider that a number of the states retaining the death penalty consistently record among the highest homicide rates in the world. Examples include Belize, Jamaica and Trinidad. Louisiana, which retains the death penalty, has led the US murder rate statistics for over 20 years.
For many years now, there has been a clear worldwide trend towards abolition. In 1977, only 16 countries in the world were abolitionist. In a report published in September 2014, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that in the mid-1990s, 40 countries were known to carry out executions every year. Since then, the number of countries carrying out executions has halved, and about 160 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice: of those, 98 have abolished it altogether.
The UK uses its diplomatic network throughout the world to promote abolition. We do this jointly with our partners in the EU, which is similarly committed to abolition: no country can join the EU if it retains capital punishment and no EU country can extradite a person to another country where they may face capital punishment. But abolition is a global trend: most of Latin America, African states like South Africa, Rwanda, Benin and Burundi, and Asian countries like Nepal, Mongolia and Cambodia, have also abolished the death penalty.
It is for the Government of Kenya to determine whether it wishes to join this growing group of countries committed to abolishing the death penalty. We note that no execution has taken place in Kenya since 1987, despite the handing down of many such sentences. This is welcome, and we feel the time may now be right for the Government to consider going even further, with a view to eventually formalising this de facto moratorium in Kenyan law.
We accept that for some states, this is not an easy issue, and we acknowledge that many people – including in the UK – support capital punishment in principle. The UK’s own path to abolition was a long one. Our own experience suggests that public support tends to fall as the public becomes better informed about the issue – in particular about the lack of evidence to prove that the death penalty has any deterrent effect, and the possibility of miscarriage of justice.
In a little over a month, the UK and Kenya will be taking part in the debate on the death penalty in the General Assembly of the United Nations. This debate takes place every two years. The United Nations Secretary General has repeatedly called on UN member states to abolish the death penalty. In 2012, we saw the biggest vote yet in favour of a worldwide moratorium on executions, by 111 states. We hope that ever more countries will heed the call of the United Nations, and finally put an end to this practice.
(Dr Turner is the UK High Commissioner to Kenya)