5th World Congress for Abolition of the Death Penalty: Madrid 12th – 15th June, 2013
Since 2001, each three years a world congress for abolition of the death penalty is held. Until the present, the world meeting was located in a European city, with the exception of 2004, when it was held in Montreal, no doubt to bring the message of abolition closer to the US, one of the bastions of execution in a world making steady progress to total abolition.
Earlier congresses began on a note of celebration, welcoming new adherents to abolition. At the 2010 Congress in Geneva, there was an atmosphere of high hope with a prediction that the death penalty could be banished for ever by as early as the year 2015.
In Madrid, 2013, there was little expectation of such an early victory over the age old curse and aberration of human rights. The promise implied in the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 is still the mast head of the movement for abolition: Article 3 “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. In 1948 only 8 countries had abolished the death penalty. Currently, more than 150 countries have either abolished the death penalty or do not practise it. Last year, 174 United Nations Member States were "execution-free". The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, being entrusted by the UN with special responsibility for achieving the ideal of the Universal Declaration, keeps tally of the state of abolition.
He addressed a ringing invitation to the delegates of the 5th World Congress. In a statement read at the official opening, he implored political leaders in countries across the world that still have the death penalty in their justice systems to abolish it, saying that the campaign to eliminate the death penalty as a form of punishment has mainly faced resistance from political leaders. In Thailand, the attitude of our leaders is rather one of apathy and disinterest, but the outcome is the same, persistence of death sentences in legal process. The secretary General added: "The taking of life is too absolute and irreversible for one human being to inflict on another, even when backed by a legal process. Too often, multiple layers of judicial oversight still fail to reverse wrongful death penalty convictions for years and even decades."
Shadows, alluded to by Ban Ki Moon, were cast on the 5th Congress by a persistence of the death penalty which appear to contrast with the steady advance to abolition celebrated in earlier congresses. It appears that the gains of the past which led to the elimination of the death penalty in the 47 nation block of the Council of Europe, in the European Union, in the majority of American states, in many members of the Organization of African States, have reached geographical and ideological limits. In these countries, abolition of the death penalty was favoured by a cultural unanimity, which made it possible to impose it as a condition of membership, or to declare it as a favoured objective. Outside these regions, the advance to abolition must be made one country at a time, even if membership of the United Nations implies acceptance of the Universal Declaration. But the Declaration is not a binding treaty, and clear though its stand may be on the inviolability of life, nation members can and do continue to claim exemption from compulsory adherence. Some nations, notably Singapore, go even further and submit a formal objection to the UN sponsored motion calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, first passed by majority vote of the UN General Assembly in 2007 and repeated with a stronger voice in 2008, 2010 and 2012.
The Programme of the 5th Congress revealed the serious concern of the world movement in the choice of topic of its plenary sessions. The first was devoted to what is now referred to as the MENA (Middle East and North African) region. The question asked was “Which arguments in favour of abolition from a sociological, religious and legal point of view? (sic)”. The crux of the matter is that the states of the MENA region are Muslim states where religion is paramount and Koranic injunctions of capital punishment are considered mandatory. In a huge plenary session it is not possible to have an open discussion. Exchange of viewpoint took place in parallel workshops which allowed participation of delegates. Specific subjects were, “Terrorism and abolition”, “Iran: What are the political instruments to try to stop execution waves”
The theme of terrorism was often heard throughout the Congress, referring to crimes for which some states were most insistent on retaining the death penalty. While states which retain the death penalty are increasingly prepared to restrict its use, they insist on its retention as a supposed remedy for the worst of the worst of crimes, namely terrorism. Those who oppose the death penalty for all crimes, respond that terrorists do not fear death and allowing the death penalty for terrorism is rewarding the terrorist with martyrdom!
The second day of the Congress, 14th June, began with a second plenary session on “Asia”. Asia, referred to as “The New Frontier” in a seminal work on the death penalty in Asia, is the area where most executions in the world occur. China alone executes more than all other countries combined. The exact number is considered a state secret and unknown. A conservative estimate is 7280 per year but a speculative figure reaches 10,000. In Asia too there occurs another sombre development, the reappearance of the death penalty in countries such as India and Pakistan which had been considered as de facto abolitionist, a title give to countries which were recorded as execution free for a period of ten years. A return to executions is usually ascribed to the need to counter terrorism. So central is the Asian region to the total of world executions that there is a strong movement to locate the next Congress in three years time to an Asian country, facilitating greater Asian participation and tackling the death penalty on its most tenacious ground.
Spain, and Madrid’s majestic Palacio Municipal de Congresso, provided a congenial meeting place for the huge congress against the death penalty. In a central room of the congress was exhibited a garrotte, the grotesque instrument of execution in Spain, which had been used for hundreds of years to inflict death, last used in 1974. This instrument of horror is a stark reminder of the heritage of suffering we are now working to end, and to remind countries which have already abolished the death penalty that we speak from sad experience and not from any position of moral superiority.