Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to be here and I’d like to start by thanking our hosts, Elizabeth Zitrin, President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and Bishop Roy Campbell, Pastoral Bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington.
In 1945, only eight countries had abolished the death penalty. Thirty three years later, in 1978, that number had merely doubled. Today, however, more than 150 countries have either legally abolished the death penalty, or established moratoriums by practice.
As you know, the European Union holds a strong and principled position against the death penalty. As a union founded on democracy, human rights and the rule of law, it is natural for us to oppose it. It is part of our common identity, so much so that it is a requirement for any State applying to join the EU.
If we look at the history of this movement, it is interesting to note that it was on the heels of major war and destruction that the anti-death penalty movement gathered momentum in the Europe. The fall of repressive or dictatorial regimes following the Second World War brought a frankness to conversations surrounding the death penalty. Europeans were still reeling from the extreme arbitrariness and abuses of power many had witnessed during the war, and it was no great leap to see that the death penalty carried within it the same potential for arbitrary violence.
But to abandon the death penalty, calls for strong leaders willing to take a stand and to represent a moral high ground.
In France, it was President Mitterrand who took on this mission, together with his Minister of Justice, Robert Badinter. Ahead of public opinion, they repealed the death penalty in 1981, and found support only after the fact, through deliberate and exemplary leadership.
On both sides of the Atlantic, those who have witnessed the death penalty are haunted by its lasting imprint.
Recently, I was reading that in September 2014, Mr. Badinter returned to La Santé prison in Paris. There, in 1972, he witnessed the execution by guillotine of one of the last inmates sentenced to death in France, a man for whom he, as a lawyer, had desperately tried to win a reprieve. Mr. Badinter, now 89, observed, “The shadow of the guillotine is everywhere”.
That same month in 2014, Texas Monthly newspaper ran a long profile of Michelle Lyons, a former reporter with The Huntsville Item who spent more than a decade working as a public affairs officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. By the time she departed from the Department, Ms. Lyons, now in her late 30s, had witnessed 278 executions. She told Texas Monthly, “I think about it all the time.”
So abolishing the death penalty is a key objective for the European Union’s human rights policy.
Today, the death penalty has not only been abolished in all 28 member countries of the European Union, but also in all 47 member countries of the Council of Europe, which includes countries like Russia and Turkey. And we hope it will continue to be abolished in Turkey.
This brings me to the United States, the democracy which has the largest number of capital punishment executions each year. I am hopeful that this won’t remain the case for much longer. Although as many as 20 people were executed last year, which underlines the work yet to be done towards repealing the death penalty, this number represents a 25-year record low and we’re hopeful that this downward trend will continue. Until the abolition of capital punishment, which would put the U.S. on the right side of history.
I am sometimes asked, “Why is the EU concerned with how the United States administers its justice system?” It is a good question.
And while fully recognising the truly horrific crimes at the heart of some cases, and mindful of the suffering of the victims and their families, the penalty itself is also a dehumanizing practice. We do not believe that victims of violent crimes are adequately compensated for their losses by the death of another person.
We are also convinced that it is an illusion to believe that the death penalty deters the most serious crimes. There is no difference in the number of serious crimes committed in a country that has abolished the death penalty as opposed to those in countries that still administer it. Abolitionist states are not softer on crimes than retentionist states. All crimes are best fought through a functioning judicial system, not through taking life.
Another inherent flaw of the death penalty is that it is deeply rooted in social injustice. Everywhere the death penalty is applied globally, statistics show that it discriminates against the poor, the minorities and the marginalised citizens of a society.
New Jersey State Senator Raymond Lesniak, who was behind New Jersey’s repeal of the death penalty in 2007, underlined this very fact, when he said, “The death penalty is a random act of brutality. Its application throughout the United States is random, depending on where the murder occurred, the race and economic status of who committed the murder, the race and economic status of the person murdered and, of course, the quality of the legal defence.”
Most importantly, the death penalty claims innocent lives. And with the number of proven wrongful convictions in the United States on the rise, this eventuality is of great concern. As Bryan Stevenson – great lawyer, social justice activist and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative – has constantly said, “Death penalty in America is defined by error… For every nine people who have been executed, we’ve actually identified one innocent person who’s been exonerated and released from death row.” There is no permissible margin of error when a human being’s life hangs in the balance.
A few months ago, in support for the World and Europe Day Against the Death Penalty, the European Union Delegation organised the World Premiere of “THE GATHERING”. This documentary tells the story of Witness to Innocence, which is the largest organisation of death row exonerees in the country.
Witness to Innocence is led by a remarkable person called Leno Rose-Avila who is present here tonight. Not only did I have the great honour to meet Leno then, but I also had the opportunity to speak with men and women who suffered at the hands of the state for crimes they did not commit. These people endured years of wrongful punishment and awaited for their execution on death row while knowing they were innocent. They ultimately escaped the ultimate injustice of dying for something they didn’t do, but how many others haven’t been acquitted early enough? How many lives have been taken by mistake?
There is much more to discuss about the death penalty, but let me briefly turn our attention to what the EU is doing to fight for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, and more specifically, in the United States.
Through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, the EU remains the main donor to NGOs fighting to repeal the death penalty worldwide. Since 2007, this European Instrument has allocated more than 25 million Euros to projects around the world.
We intervene both on individual cases and at a general policy level when a country’s policy on the death penalty is in flux. Every year, the European Union issues statements in excess of 30 individual cases on average, and carries out more than 30 other actions in favour of individuals at risk of execution. I have actually just written to the Governor of Virginia to ask him to exert clemency for Mr. Morva, a dual American and Hungarian national sentenced to death, who presents signs of mental illness.
The EU is also the first regional body in the world to have adopted rules prohibiting the trade in goods used for capital punishment, as well as the supply of technical assistance related to such goods, with a particular impact in the United States.
In the United States, in addition supporting the ban of lethal drugs, the EU has intervened in many judicial cases, including Amicus Curiae briefs considering our strong interest. Last April, through various diplomatic channels such as public statements and in close coordination with the NGO community, we strongly opposed the series of eight executions scheduled in the state of Arkansas.
A few years ago, Kenneth Roth wrote, “America today needs its Francois Mitterrand and Robert Badinter. There is no shortage of death penalty opponents in the United States. But we need political leaders who are willing to take the risk of standing up for what they believe.”
Over the last few years, we have seen anti-death penalty sentiments grow. But the long road Europe has travelled to the abolition of the death penalty shows us that the opposition to death penalty is unlikely to be popular without a strong leader.
If we wait for public opinion alone to turn the tide, abolition may never come. What we need, in the United States and in those countries where the death penalty continues to be legal, is a vibrant civil society working in conjunction with political leaders, who together with public support will work to repeal the death penalty, thus ending this blight on our common humanity.
This is the reason why we are very thankful for the work of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and this is also why the European Union will continue to fight relentlessly at your side in favour of the abolition of the death penalty.
And it is precisely because the U.S. is our greatest ally, that I am deeply concerned that they keep implementing the death penalty. We need to be true to who we are. We can’t remain silent. So in friendship and respect, we pursue the objective of the final abolition of capital punishment in the U.S
Thank you very much.
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