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Ninety Countries Meet for Global Conference Against Death Penalty

[All links lead to pages in Spanish, except where otherwise noted.]

The “5º Congreso Mundial Contra la Pena de Muerte” (5th World Conference Against the Death Penalty) was held in Madrid, Spain from June 12-15, 2013. Periodismo Ciudadano (PC) and Global Voices in Spanish have partnered in covering this important event. The following contribution by Anabel Sánchez Sierra of PC provides a summary of the congress.

The 5th World Conference Against the Death Penalty was a widely anticipated event, with 90 countries participating. Key issues discussed included the abolition of the death penalty, along with the related issues of adherence to human rights treaties, the procurement of a moratorium on death penalty convictions, and the establishment of penal code reforms.

The idea for this international event was generated at the previous convention, held in Geneva in 2010. At that time, Spain committed to creating the “Comisión Internacional Contra la Pena de Muerte,” or International Commission Against the Death Penalty (established that same year at the World Day Against the Death Penalty) for the purpose of achieving a universal moratorium on the death penalty within the next five years.

Congreso Pena de Muerte Madrid

A significant number of parliamentary and political leaders were present for the occasion, particularly those representing Asia and Africa, regions of principal concern, along with several Nobel Peace Prize Recipients. During the Opening Ceremony,  Norway's Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gry Larsen, focused on the high standard being set by Europe for the rest of the world.

Among the countries which only a few years back practiced the death penalty in full force, worthy of special mention were France, in which the death penalty was abolished in 1981, and Spain, in which the death penalty was eliminated in 1995 for all crimes. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, made much of the fact that key political players are conscious of the need to end capital punishment, even though public opinion may favor its preservation in many instances.

In addition, the vice-minister made mention of some of the key topics for the congress, which were discussed during the numerous debates, workshops, and plenary sessions (21 in total). She emphasized the need for all political activity to be directed through parliamentary networks, where political representatives throughout the world can be involved in discussions on the death penalty. Examples of pioneers in these networks are countries as distinct from one another as the United Kingdom and Morocco. The former has created a special parliamentary group, made up of members from both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, whose constituents travel to the parliaments of non-abolitionist countries to attempt to change their positions. The latter country has managed to bring together a total of 160 parliamentarians working toward a few common objectives [fr]: abolishing the death penalty and the related issue of adherence to human rights treaties, as well as the procurement of a moratorium on these types of sentences (projected for 2014) and penal code reforms.

The opening session was also attended by representatives of other countries with different political situations, such as Benin, the Philippines, Burkina Faso, Iraq, and Tunisia. The participation of Tunisia was notable, not only because of its representative's express petition to Congress that abolition be treated as a key issue in the next elections, but also because of that country's hope of becoming one of the chief abolitionist nations in North Africa.

The Middle East and North Africa

The largest part of the programming for this congress centered around the geographic axis known as MENA (referring to the Middle East and North Africa) [en]. Many problems currently deter this region's progress along abolitionist lines: the religious radicalization of governments and the existence of a justice system that creates distrust in the population when it comes to punishing criminal offenders. The separation of human rights from religion was presented as essential.

During the opening session, the Iraqi Minister of Justice, Hassan Al Shammari, defended his country's position on the need to ensure exemplary punishment for crimes committed by “terrorists,” adding that the decision whether or not to adopt the death penalty was an issue that is heavily influenced by religion and culture. The next day, these arguments were dismantled during a plenary session, in which Youssef Seddik (anthropologist and Islamic philosopher, Tunisia) stated that the main problem in not progressing toward an abolitionist position is rooted in the fact that these countries have made a poor interpretation of the Koran, which does not impose the application of Talion Law [i.e. "an eye for an eye"] for Muslims, but does, on the other hand, impose the preservation of life through forgiveness.

For this reason, one of the main objectives for this region was set down as that of trying to do away with the threat which the death penalty imposes on the right to life in the majority of the constitutions of these countries. To make this possible, a true democratization is necessary  which would protect human rights above all else, and would not be limited to the holding of elections.

Lebanese parliamentarian Ghassan Moukheiber summarized the region's hopes succinctly: ’These things are necessary: courage, time, and continuous action.”

The United States and Latin America

The United States was also much discussed, along with the contradiction evident in the fact that the number one world power and champion of human rights continues to defend and practice capital punishment.

From the Caribbean region, notable was the special situation of Puerto Rico, a country that abolished the death penalty in 1929, yet could well continue applying it due to American influence (to date, no jury there has imposed a sentence of capital punishment in Puerto Rico). Criminal sentences there are handed down in English, not in the language spoken by the majority of the population, which is Spanish, another fact which accentuates the problem even further.

A serious situation exists in Guatemala, which is best summed up with statistics: 42 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants, 16 per day, and with the public clamoring in support of the death penalty.

Asia

The discussion surrounding Asia began with highlights of some of the advances made in the abolitionist movement, such the adoption of a moratorium in several countries. Despite this, there is concern that executions may resume due to public opinion, as has already occurred in Taiwan and India. Another problem is that sentences are issued not only for blood crimes, but also for crimes such as drug trafficking (Indonesia and Singapore). Mongolia was the country that offered the most hope for the region, and according to Sosormaa Chulunnbaatar, Human Rights Adviser in Mongolia, the country could adopt abolition by next year.

During the congress debates, the discussion topics generated a great deal of controversy, such as the issue of minors. In Iran, capital punishment is acceptable for minors starting at age 15 for boys and at age 9 for girls, and is usually negotiated by families. On many occasions, a family will pay a sum of money in exchange for the life of the minor, with boys’ lives being more “valuable” than girls’ lives. In Sudan, most of the minors condemned to death are boys, child soldiers who are normally executed by hanging, stoning, or by the same method used to killed their victims. At the present time, there are seven child soldiers on death row.

Panelistas de la Mesa Redonda: Menores de edad y la pena de muerte en el mundo.

Round table panelists: Minors and the death penalty around the world.

Drug trafficking

The problem presented by the issue of drug trafficking is that, although not generally considered a very serious offense, it produces a number of executions. Maya Foa, assistant director of the capital punishment division of Reprieve [en], provided some significant data. The death penalty is obligatory for drug-related crimes in a total of 12 countries. The greatest number of executions ordered for these crimes corresponds to Iran (10,000 public hangings between 1979 and 2001), a country which also happens to have the world's greatest problem with heroin addiction among people under age 35. These facts are aggravated by two others: European countries finance the “hunt” for drug traffickers, and in many cases, prisoners are extradited from abolitionist countries to non-abolitionist countries for execution.

In order to achieve global abolition of the death penalty, solutions are required. Most of the sessions focused on finding such solutions through dialogue and the sharing of experiences among the various countries of the world. All were in agreement that one of the most efficient solutions is educating the populations of countries that have still not adopted abolition. In Puerto Rico, workshops are being developed for journalists (providing them with information, statistics, and other pertinent data) in order to obtain more press coverage and organize cultural activities related to the topic. Along with countries like Morocco and Lebanon, Puerto Rico is committed to promoting discussion and raising awareness among students.

In the United States, there are plans to broadcast testimonials and informational campaigns designed to impact the American consciousness. Internet communication and marketing plans are critical, along with the creation of international networks of victims of the judicial system.

The Congress concluded on June 15 with a closing ceremony at Callao City Lights in the Callao Plaza and was attended by important figures from the worlds of politics and human rights, as well as spokespeople from the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty [en], and the director and Ssecretary general of Juntos Contra la Pena de Muerte (ECPM) (United Against the Death Penalty), who were organizers of the event.

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