PRI’s Death Penalty Programme Manager Jacqueline Macalesher responds to the revised EU Guidelines on the Death Penalty adopted last week, which have made a number of significant improvements to the EU’s policy on the fight against the death penalty.
On 22 April, the Foreign Affairs Council adopted new revised and updated EU Guidelines on the Death Penalty.
The EU Guidelines on the Death Penalty were first adopted in 1998 as a tool to strengthen the EU’s activities in the fight for the abolition of the death penalty. The Guidelines set criteria for making general or individual representations and outline the minimum standards that should be applied in countries retaining the death penalty.
We welcomed the review of the Guidelines, which was a golden opportunity for the EU to address emerging issues linked to the application of the death penalty, and ensure that the EU continues to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. In December 2012, we sent a submission to the EU’s Human Rights Working Group (COHOM), which was tasked with leading on the review, and we participated at a COHOM meeting in February 2013. On both occasions we were able to raise issues that were missing from the Guidelines, and highlight loopholes in the EU’s minimum standards for the application of the death penalty.
The revised guidelines have made a number of key improvements to the minimum standards in states that still maintain the use of the death penalty, including:
- Narrowing the definition of ‘most serious crimes’. The revised Guidelines state that the death penalty must not be imposed for ‘non-violent acts’, and economic, political and drug-related crimes have been added to the list of offences that the death penalty should not be imposed for, which previously included financial offences, religious practices or expression of conscience, and sexual relations between consenting adults.
- Widening the categories of people whom the death penalty may not be imposed on. Nursing mothers, people with mental illnesses or learning difficulties, and the elderly, have now been added to the previous categories, which covered persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of their crime, pregnant women and new mothers.
- Prohibiting military tribunals imposing death sentences on civilians.
- Insisting that states take into consideration the conditions of death row as well as the length of time spent awaiting execution. The Guidelines highlight that these two circumstances may constitution forms of torture or inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.
- Prohibiting secret executions, and insisting that the family and lawyers of prisoners on death row should be notified of the details of their execution.
- Prohibiting the discriminatory application of the death penalty, on any grounds, including political affiliation, sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.
The revised Guidelines make an important reference to ensuring that actions, such as legal, financial or other technical assistance to third countries, do not contribute to the use of the death penalty.
However, the revised Guidelines do not make explicit reference to the provision of financial or technical assistance to drug enforcement programmes in countries that retain the death penalty for drug-related offences. The EU’s complicity in the imposition of the death penalty for drug-related offences has become an increasingly hot topic, raised by the European Parliament, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The revision of the Guidelines provided an opportunity to set guiding principles governing EU funding for country level and regional drug enforcement activities to ensure such programmes do not result in the application of the death penalty, and it is disappointing that the EU did not go further in this respect.
The revised Guidelines however did commit the EU to consider, on a case-by-case basis, taking actions and interventions in legal proceedings (as amicus curiae, or otherwise) where appropriate and legally permissible.
They reminded EU Member States that, through the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, they are prohibited from removing, expelling or extraditing a person to a State where there is a serious risk that he or she would be subjected to the death penalty.
They aim to encourage greater transparency around the death penalty, including seeking further information on the use of the death penalty in countries that retain it.
They support the development of regional measures and instruments aimed at the abolition of the death penalty, and makes important references to both international and regional initiatives aimed towards abolition of the death penalty, including measures adopted through the African Union and the Organisation of American States.
It is expected that the next review of these Guidelines will take place in 2016. We will continue to work closely with the EU to identify opportunities to implement the revised Guidelines in our programme of work.
Find out more about our work on the death penalty.