All states in the MENA region currently retain the death penalty in law – and some continue to carry out executions – but PRI’s Death Penalty Project Manager sees reason for optimism at a two-day conference held by PRI’s MENA office in Algiers.
Spanning 8,000km from east to west, MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) is a major world region, containing countries bound together by shared geography, history, culture and religion. There are also major differences between countries within MENA: this is a region that includes the richest country in the world (Qatar, with a GDP of over $100,000 per person) and some of poorest (such as Yemen, with $2,250), countries emerging from conflict (such as Iraq) and countries that have had the same form of regime for decades (such as Jordan).
The death penalty is a major issue in MENA. Depending slightly on which countries you include, all states in the region retain the death penalty in law or practice (Turkey and Djibouti, which are occasionally described as in MENA, are abolitionist). Alongside political and legal arguments found elsewhere, MENA countries also draw on religious arguments for retaining the death penalty, specifically the apparent requirement in Islam to impose capital punishment for certain offences (which do not exceed four offences in Islamic Sharia).
However, there are also many thriving and emerging civil society groups working for abolition in the region, and many of them came together on 15-16 December 2013 in Algeria. A two-day conference in Algiers, organised by PRI’s MENA office together with Ensemble contre la peine de mort and the Algerian Consultative Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, discussed regional perspectives on the death penalty and the role of civil society. Over 100 participants heard about the current situation of the death penalty in the region and around the world, and the experience of activists in eight countries in the region. They also separated into smaller groups to draw up a workplan for 2014-15, focusing on public awareness-raising, parliamentary and legal advocacy, and regional/international lobbying. At the end of the conference they drew up the ‘Declaration of Algiers’, summarising what had happened and their hopes for the future.
The overall message that came from the conference was one of hope and possibility. Several countries in the region may be close to full abolition: the host, Algeria, has maintained a moratorium on executions for 20 years, including during the ten years of conflict between the army and radical armed groups, and co-sponsored the 2012 UN resolution on a global moratorium. Neighbour Morocco has a strong abolitionist caucus in the Parliament and the opposition has recently called for an end to the death penalty. Any changes within MENA would have likely impact not only on other states within the region, but also other nearby countries such as Mauritania. As one of the speakers said:
‘It takes courage for politicians to abolish the death penalty, but they don’t lose elections over it’.
The role of civil society is to help them find that courage.