Next month, it will be 48 years since the last execution on British soil. Internationally, more countries than ever have been electing to also abandon the death penalty. Amnesty International’s latest report on death sentences and executions shows that the number of countries retaining capital punishment has decreased by one third over the last decade. More countries than ever are also instituting moratoriums on the practice. However, Amnesty reports that 149 more people were known to be executed in 2011 than in 2010. In the Middle East in particular, 2011 saw a steep rise in the number of recorded executions. The Chinese government have also resisted publishing their death penalty statistics, although the number put to death annually has been estimated to be in the thousands.
The position of the UK government – and the Liberal Democrats – on capital punishment is clear. We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle. 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. Last year on World Day against the Death Penalty, I wrote an article here on Liberal Democrat Voice. Then, as now, I am proud to be standing up for our values at home and overseas with our international partners. However, our work is far from over.
As a Minister in the Foreign Office, I often travel to countries which still use the death penalty as part of their sentencing regime. I regularly raise the issue with my counterparts and have made several interventions on specific cases. Although the number of countries using the death penalty has decreased many still have Capital Punishment in their penal code. In South Korea, which has had a moratorium in place for fifteen years, I advocated its abolition in a speech I gave at Korea University. In India, I raised my concerns over the possibility of their seven year moratorium being breached regarding a specific case. While I was in Japan, I met with the Japanese Parliamentary League for Abolition and raised the issue of Japan’s use of the death penalty with the then-Senior Vice Minister of Justice Taki. In Westminster, I regularly host meetings with NGOs, academics and interested parties in a group on the abolition of the death penalty worldwide. The last meeting, held in March, focussed on plans for the FCO’s work on the death penalty in the US, China and Iraq.
Last month, the Government announced the introduction of controls on the export of the anaesthetic Propofol to the United States, when it is in a form suitable for lethal injection. This follows a two-year process this Government began to control the export of Sodium Thiopental to the US. This is a drug that is sometimes part of the ‘cocktail’ used during lethal injections. The decision to apply export controls was taken after concerns were expressed that UK drugs may have been used in executions in some States. These controls were extended to three additional drugs last year, and this prompted the introduction at the end of 2011 of EU-wide measures to control the export of a range of drugs which can be used for the purpose of lethal injection.
This is progress but there is clearly still a long way to go before the death penalty is abolished worldwide. However, I am committed to keeping the pressure up on countries like China and the United States, in the hope that one day they too will be celebrating almost half a century without capital punishment.
* Jeremy Browne is the MP for Taunton Deane, and Minister of Crime Prevention in the Home Office