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Iraq: Death Penalty

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to the report by Amnesty International on the increasing use of the death penalty in Iraq.

My Lords, Amnesty International’s report on the increasing use of the death penalty in Iraq is of the most serious concern. The British Government are firmly against the use of the death penalty in any circumstances and in all cases. Since the Iraqi Government reintroduced the death penalty in 2004, the United Kingdom, together with the European Union, has repeatedly raised our policy of opposition to the death penalty at the highest level, including with the Iraqi president and prime minister.

My Lords, I warmly welcome my noble friend’s reaffirmation of the Government’s opposition to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances and his endorsement of Amnesty International’s report. Does he agree that the report’s most damaging findings, apart from the fact that Iraq is now executing more people than any other country, with the exception of China, Iran and Pakistan, are that many confessions are being secured under torture, that the accused are not being given access to defence lawyers, and that a lot of people are being made to confess on television and are then identified in court by witnesses who have seen them do that? Are we not entitled, as one of the guarantors of the Iraqi regime, to ensure that a rather better standard of criminal justice operates there? I hope that my noble friend will reiterate and reinforce the points that he has made to the Iraqis.

My Lords, the points that I have made are being reiterated regularly and frequently. Perhaps I may say that my noble friend’s figure is a per capita figure rather than an absolute figure. When we discover cases of abuse in detention, we raise them immediately with the Iraqi authorities. We urge them to act to bring those responsible to account and to prevent such abuses from recurring. In our view, there is no evidence that access to defence counsel is being systematically denied, but that is a matter that we would always investigate and draw to their attention. We are also providing practical support to local and national authorities to build their capacity to ensure that minimum human rights standards are always met.

My Lords, can we have an honest assessment of just how much influence the British Government any longer have over the Iraqi Government? I am not quite clear of our status and links now that we have withdrawn from three of the four provinces for which we were previously responsible. Yesterday, I noted from the report by the Secretary of State for Defence that we have resumed patrolling in the Gulf. However, the Iraqi Government appear to listen mainly to the US Administration, who as we know are actively in favour of capital punishment. I recall a senior member of the Bush Administration saying that they were in favour of more capital punishment. Do the Iraqi Government listen to us on these or other matters?

My Lords, the Iraqi Government most certainly listen to us, but they do not always agree. Even if I thought that they were not listening as attentively as I or this House would wish, I would be determined to continue to make the points that I have described. Capital punishment, torture and abuse are unacceptable, as are convictions secured by torture and abuse. We will continue making that point.

My Lords, given the situation described by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, why do we continue to provide military support to the Government of Iraq?

My Lords, the answer to that is plain in a wider context. We are trying to secure a peaceful and stable outcome in Iraq, whatever the difficulties that there are. In a country that was ruled by an absolute dictator who, over the years of his power, managed through his own state apparatus to butcher what is thought to be in the order of 400,000 people, there are bound to be grave difficulties. That is the nature of the job that has been undertaken.

My Lords, will my noble friend elaborate on the point about per capita figures? Will he confirm that the absolute numbers in China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and the United States are higher than those in Iraq? Sometimes some people—not my noble friend Lord Faulkner—raise the question of Iraq for reasons other than concern about capital punishment.

My Lords, I have sometimes detected that. Perhaps I may make the point about the figures completely clear. Footnote (2) of the Amnesty International report states:

“Iraq was among the countries with the highest number of reported executions per capita in 2006. The annual rate of reported executions in Iraq in 2006”—

on that per capita basis—

“was estimated at 2.7 per one million of the population”.

The absolute figures in the countries with which comparisons have been made are very much higher.

My Lords, I am sure that we all welcome the clarity of the Minister’s response. Does he accept that, in a culture in which human life is treated with such contempt and there are such extraordinary levels of loss of life, this is deeply corrupting to the whole of Iraq’s political culture? It is like a disease that spreads. Does he also accept that it is rather easier to dismantle human values than to reconstruct them?

My Lords, it is hard to create and sustain human values in the way that we would wish. However, I say to the right reverend Prelate that, if you look over the savage history of that country, you will see that respect for human values and lives was not its foremost characteristic. It is not surprising that we are still struggling with the legacy of that and with some of the things that have happened in the most recent past.

My Lords, although I agree fully with the concerns of the Minister and indeed of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, is there not at least a positive sign in that the Iraqi Government have said that the reinstatement of the death penalty, which they introduced themselves, is only temporary during the present hideous security situation, with slaughter on all sides? Ought we not to draw some encouragement from that? Further, does the Minister agree that we should concentrate entirely on ensuring that trials are not rushed, biased or coloured by any kind of rough justice, but are fair and uphold proper due process?

My Lords, I strongly agree with the tenor of those questions. That is why we are putting resources into the training of the judiciary and of senior lawyers involved in cases of this kind. There are real reasons why we should be optimistic that the period during which the death penalty is being used to this extent is passing, not least the fact that the president of Iraq is himself opposed to the use of the death penalty. The prime minister of Iraq takes a different view, but powerful forces are pulling in the direction of ending the death penalty.