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World Day Against the Death Penalty

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 6th November 2019.

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Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

I thank my colleagues who will contribute to the debate and the Minister for Older People and Equalities, Christina McKelvie, who will respond on behalf of the Scottish Government.

World day against the death penalty was marked on 10 October 2019. We were unable to hold the debate on that date, unfortunately, but I am pleased to bring it to the chamber today.

World day against the death penalty was launched in 2003 by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, in which many international human rights groups are represented. It was founded to strengthen the international fight against the death penalty and has the goal of abolition. I am glad that members are here today to add their voices and thoughts to that ambition.

Although many strides have been taken since the United Nation’s adoption of the universal human rights charter, the fundamental right to life still has to be fought for around the world.

Out of the 193 member states of the United Nations and 198 countries in the world, 142 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, including 106 states that have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Eight countries have now abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes only, with exceptions for crimes that are committed in times of war. Twenty-eight countries could be considered abolitionist in practice, having not held an execution for the past 10 years—they are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions.

The work of Amnesty International should be highlighted in today’s debate. Aside from its political advocacy, the organisation’s efforts in international record keeping ensures that states are kept accountable and that debates such as this are grounded in facts. Amnesty’s records show that 56 countries use the death penalty.

Organisations such as Amnesty are essential to the functioning of democracies around the world, as they are key in keeping institutions accountable, which is the height of importance for issues such as the death penalty and the operation of justice systems.

In the past year, 20 countries have carried out executions. In 2018, the top five countries for the number of executions were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Iraq. In that period, 690 verifiable executions were recorded. That figure excludes cases that Amnesty could not confirm, but the organisation estimates that the number of executions in China in 2018 was in the thousands. China does not release any figures on executions, as figures pertaining to the death penalty remain a state secret.

It is clear from the figures that the death penalty is still widely used as a punishment around the world. It is used not only for capital crimes, such as murder and terrorism, but for other purposes, such as discrimination and the suppression of political opinion and groups of people, as well as the suppression of individuals on the grounds of their sexuality, religious belief, race or ethnicity, or their advocacy of human rights or, specifically, women’s rights.

The death penalty also disproportionately affects members of vulnerable groups who cannot afford experienced defence attorneys to advocate on their behalf.

There are cases of children being given the death penalty, which is particularly abhorrent. To be clear, the use of the death penalty against juvenile offenders is against international law. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1969 American convention on human rights and the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child all ossify that. However, Amnesty understands that, currently, there are juvenile offenders who are under sentence of death in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and South Sudan. In addition, in 2018, Iran executed at least seven people, and South Sudan at least one person, for crimes that were committed while they were under the age of 18. This year, Iran executed two 17-year-old cousins, Mehdi and Amin. Both were arrested at the age of 15 and went through what might be considered an unfair trial.

Whether in the name of the people or in the name of the regime, the taking of life by the state is the ultimate abuse of human rights.

According to Amnesty International, China is the world’s most prolific executioner and, as I said, the real number of state executions in 2018 could be thousands higher than the confirmed number of 690. Although China is estimated to have executed thousands last year, there is no exact figure.

Right now, we are seeing a battle for democracy and the independence of judicial system in Hong Kong. We are also seeing many news reports of the mistreatment of different ethnicities in the west of China, notably the Uyghur people. Credible estimates suggest that 1 million Uyghur people are being held in camps. Human rights activists continually disappear and religious belief is suppressed. For example, in China, Christianity has grown from 3 million believers in the 1980s to an estimated 100 million in 2018. Despite that, Human Rights Watch reports that the Chinese Government crackdown on churches has intensified in Henan province from 2018 to 2019, with authorities demolishing dozens of church buildings and crosses, preventing gatherings in house churches and confiscating Bibles.

In all those cases of human rights abuses, there is great cause for concern and an international response to the political suppression, disappearances of individuals and executions that are taking place.

In times such as these, and as we recognise world death penalty day, it is clear that the role of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International UK is essential to the functioning of any democracy.

I ask my colleagues in the Scottish Parliament to join Amnesty International in calling on states to abolish the death penalty and to uphold human rights across the world.