Death Penalty — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:14 pm on 7th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Sheldon Lord Sheldon Labour 3:14 pm, 7th March 2012

To ask Her Majesty's Government what representations they are making to the relevant Governments to secure the abolition of the death penalty in China and in other countries.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

My Lords, the Government regularly urge the Chinese authorities to cease the use of the death penalty. Our most recent representations to the Chinese Government were made in China in January of this year during the 20th round of the UK-China human rights dialogue. We will continue to raise our concerns with the Chinese authorities at every appropriate opportunity, just as we do with the Governments of other countries who apply the death penalty, in line with our published strategy on abolition.

Photo of Lord Sheldon Lord Sheldon Labour

My Lords, the noble Lord has given a very useful reply. It has been estimated that capital punishment in China amounts to 5,000 executions, covering a wide range of crimes including tax evasion and drug trafficking. It has had more executions than all other nations combined. What action should other nations consider?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

The noble Lord is right that the number of executions in China is, to us, unpleasant, and we have campaigned constantly against the level. There are some signs of a positive response to our efforts and those of many other countries: China has reduced the number of crimes that carry the death penalty, from 68 to 55; and the supreme court has ordered lower courts to suspend death sentences on a number of occasions. We are urging China to set a timetable for ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There is some anecdotal evidence-indeed, even visible evidence-that important policy-makers in China are beginning to push forward strong advice that standards in China should move towards those of the rest of the responsible civilised world.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Conservative

My Lords, the courtesy of the House is that no more than one Peer is on their feet at the same time, so perhaps I may be that Peer for the moment. We have just heard from the Labour Benches; might we hear from the Liberal Democrat Benches, and then perhaps from the Cross Benches, before returning to Labour?

Noble Lords:

Sit down!

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Conservative

My Lords, it is the custom that when a Labour person has asked the Question we then give other Benches an opportunity. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, was not trying to be difficult.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, what can we say to countries that prescribe the death penalty for offences such as adultery or apostasy? My noble friend will have noted the unlawful deportation by Malaysia of the writer Hamza Kashgari to Saudi Arabia, where he faces execution for something that he said on Twitter. Will the Government propose to the UN that states which execute people for apostasy should be made ineligible for membership of the Human Rights Council?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

We most certainly do not accept that apostasy should be criminalised let alone that it should attract the death penalty. We will certainly make appropriate representations both to the country concerned and in the right fora of the UN. Our efforts to restrict the use of the death penalty apply universally, regardless of the crime for which it is imposed. That includes imposing the death penalty only for the most serious offences-if it must be imposed at all-such as murder. Freedom of religious belief, and certainly apostasy, should not in our view in any way attract the death penalty.

Photo of Baroness Stern Baroness Stern Crossbench

My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister about the situation in the Commonwealth, and I should declare an interest as I chair the All-Party Group for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. Twenty-one of the 54 Commonwealth countries still retain the death penalty. In view of the disappointing outcome at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in October last year on human rights, can the Minister tell the House what new strategy has been developed to deal with abolition in Commonwealth countries?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

Like the noble Baroness, I certainly declare an interest in the Commonwealth. She is quite right. The figures that I have show that 36 of the Commonwealth countries retain the death penalty in statute, but of those, 15 are in effect abolitionists and have not used it in practice. Eleven countries have carried through executions since 2000, and that is not satisfactory. It is certainly one of the values of the Commonwealth system that we are in a position to press very hard on those countries to see whether they will move towards abolition more quickly. My right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary called for the abolition of the death penalty when he addressed the Commonwealth People's Forum in Perth last October. So the pressure is on, and we will certainly continue. However, I emphasise that the very existence of the Commonwealth enables us to increase that pressure and focus it effectively.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in arguing against the death penalty, in line with our Government's policy, the difficulty is that the countries concerned can then say, "Yes-what about the United States?". What representations do we make to the United States? It represents the weakest point in the argument against the death penalty.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

I would not myself put it in the way that the noble Lord has. The United States is one of our priority countries, and we regularly make our views known to the US authorities bilaterally through the European Union and in any other way that we can. We are particularly concerned about individual cases of British nationals facing the death penalty in the USA. It is undeniably a problem, but I do not think that it weakens the argumentation that can be put forward in other countries-where, here and there, there are some definite signs of progress. I remind the noble Lord that, for instance, in 2009 Barbados announced its intention to abolish the death penalty. There is a UN General Assembly resolution coming up on this whole area which we are strongly supporting.

Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Liberal Democrat

Further to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, does my noble friend agree that the United States is a particular problem because there are well over 4,000 people on death row, many of whom have been there for many years? That must amount to cruel and inhuman punishment. Some of those are mentally retarded people. Will the Government make real efforts to persuade the United States and the federal government to drop capital punishment?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

We will certainly continue to do so.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what action the Government are taking over the abhorrent policies in some countries to exact the death penalty on young people under the age of 18?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

I suspect that the noble Baroness is referring particularly to some of the horrific stories from Iran. We regard those with horror, and we continue to press extremely hard, in line with our general desire to see the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, where those kinds of particularly repulsive and ugly penalties are inflicted.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

My Lords, following the position on the US, when we make our welcome representations to the Chinese authorities, do they in fact say, "Well, how do you deal with the US?". Does it in fact blunt our own representations that the US does have the death penalty in so many states?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

I cannot answer precisely having not been personally involved in all these bilateral negotiations, but my impression is that it does not. My impression is that countries either say, "We listen politely to your views"-as, for instance, in the case of Japan-or, "We recognise that we must move forward", in some other cases; or some of them give us a rather dustier answer and say, "These are internal matters for us. Please go away".