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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 Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

I congratulate Bill Kidd on securing the debate.

Like other members who have spoken, I strongly oppose the death penalty. That is because I believe that no one has the right to take a human life.

It is a grim thought that in 2019, every four hours, people around the world are executed. That includes innocent people such as political activists, journalists, human rights lawyers and gay people. In some theocratic regimes, conducting an extramarital relationship can result in execution.

The figure also includes people who have been convicted of serious crimes. In many cases, the justice and penal systems under which they were convicted and imprisoned can be deeply flawed and inhumane, and sometimes such people wait for a long time for the awful sentence to be carried out. International law now recognises that the mental trauma from impending death and lengthy incarceration causes mental health deterioration—that is known as the death row phenomenon. Developing international jurisprudence says that that in itself constitutes cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment, which is prohibited by international law under article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that the death penalty can be used only in very restricted circumstances. That has provided a framework for some countries to move away from mandatory executions to giving individualised consideration to a convicted person’s character record and circumstances.

However, it is clear that individualised consideration is compromised for many people who have a mental illness or an intellectual disability. Customary international law prohibits the execution of mentally ill people and people with severe intellectual disabilities, and the UN Commission on Human Rights has adopted several resolutions that urge all states not to execute any such person, but some countries continue to convict them. Why should they not do so? Mentally ill people and people with intellectual disabilities are much more likely to confess to crimes that they did not commit. Such defendants are much less likely to be able to meaningfully assist their lawyers and are more likely to be poor, to present as hostile and to be perceived as lacking in remorse. Crucially, there is little data to tell us how many such people are executed globally, because of the dearth of qualified mental health professionals in executing countries. Individuals are not assessed properly in those penal systems, and mental illness and intellectual disabilities are not documented.

Such spectacular systemic prejudice against people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities in executing countries must be amplified in the debate, particularly given that recent analysis shows that there has been an increase in the use of the death penalty around the world. In 2018, four executions took place in Belarus, which were the first executions in the region since 2005. The number of executions has tripled in Japan, and there has been an overall increase across the Asian Pacific region. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, there has been an 89 per cent increase in the number of executions, and federal executions in the US resumed in 2019.

Here in Scotland, the death penalty was abolished in 1969, but there is no room for complacency. A 2019 poll revealed that 41 per cent of Scots favour the reintroduction of the death penalty, and there has been a rise in pro-death penalty support in the UK since the EU referendum in 2016, which is extremely worrying. The death penalty is cruel, inhuman, degrading and a violation of the inherent right to life. In my view, it is wrong, per se, which is why I am very pleased to have spoken in the debate and that Bill Kidd secured it.