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UN: Death Penalty

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they have taken to garner support from other member states for the resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, to be considered at the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Abolition of the Death Penalty.

My Lords, the United Kingdom welcomes the adoption of the UN resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty and was pleased to co-sponsor this important initiative. The increase in support on the 2008 resolution to 107 votes in favour reinforces the international trend towards abolition of the death penalty. In October and November, the United Kingdom discussed the aims and content of the resolution with several key states, particularly those which we considered might adopt a new position or where we were keen to confirm support.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the Government’s efforts at the United Nations and on the success of the resolution. The Minister will be aware that Singapore was one of the states strongly opposed to the resolution. In relation to Singapore, is the Minister aware of the book by the British author Alan Shadrake, which highlights flaws in the way in which the courts in Singapore deal with capital cases? Is he further aware that Mr Shadrake has been given a prison sentence of six weeks for insulting the Singapore judiciary as a consequence of his book? Therefore, have the Government made representations to Singapore about the treatment of Mr Shadrake and about the use of the death penalty there?

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her kind words. She is of course second to none in campaigning on this central and very important issue. Yes, I am aware of Mr Shadrake’s book and can confirm that he has been sentenced to six weeks in jail for contempt of court. My colleague, the Minister of State, Jeremy Browne MP, issued a statement on 16 November expressing dismay that Mr Shadrake had been charged, convicted and sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment in Singapore for expressing his personal views on the legal system.

Senior United Kingdom officials have discussed the death penalty with Singapore, most recently in July. The Singaporean authorities are aware that we certainly do not share their views on certain aspects of human rights, but we and the European Union continue to engage with them to encourage them to ratify and implement international human rights agreements and conventions.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the support that 22 Commonwealth countries still have for the death penalty? I note that the Foreign Office strategy document on the abolition of the death penalty makes an issue of the fact that the Government have to work with those countries. Will my noble friend tell us what he is doing to get the Commonwealth countries on board to abolish the death penalty?

This issue is particularly important to me personally, as of course it is to the Government as a whole. As we have outlined in HMG Strategy for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, we are looking to expand that work with the Commonwealth, given the number of Commonwealth countries that retain the death penalty, as my noble friend rightly pointed out. We have funded projects in a number of countries and there has been some success. We successfully challenged the mandatory death penalty in Barbados in 2009 and in Kenya in 2010. Indeed, the Kenya challenge led to the commutation of the sentences of the entire population of 4,000 prisoners being held on death row in 2009. There is some progress, but my noble friend is right to say that this is a very worrying area.

My Lords, does the Minister realise that the English Bar has a very good relationship with the Singapore Bar? Could we not use the English Bar to press on its colleagues in Singapore the necessity of being more generous towards people?

I think that that is a very good idea, and one that is often overlooked in thinking about and analysing the Commonwealth. The legal and judicial links between the 54 countries of the Commonwealth provide one of the most powerful opportunities to improve and upgrade human rights, and indeed the administration of justice generally. The noble Lord is absolutely right.

My Lords, in 2010 Sudan raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and introduced the Child Act 2010, which prohibits the execution of children. However, in October, 10 people, of whom four are believed to be children, were sentenced to death by hanging. What representations have the Government made to Sudan on this issue?

The noble Lord is right to use the word “However” because, although Sudan has raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and has indeed introduced an Act of Parliament that inhibits the execution of children—I should think so too—nevertheless, in October, 10 people were sentenced to death by hanging and four of them are believed to be children. We regularly raise human rights issues with the Government of Sudan, including that of the death penalty. We are aware of the incidents in question and continue to monitor the situation closely. I cannot tell the noble Lord more than that at the moment, but he is absolutely right to point out the contrast between what Sudan has passed as law and what it appears to be intending to do. I hope that we can take effective action.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the only country in the Council of Europe to retain the death penalty is Belarus, which has held two executions this year. That is on a par with its disgraceful treatment of the Roma people. What efforts have the Government made to persuade Belarus to abandon the death penalty?

The noble Baroness is right to say that Belarus is the last country in Europe to retain the death penalty. Indeed, for that reason, it is not in the Council of Europe. We continue to lobby the authorities to establish a moratorium on the death penalty as a first step towards its abolition. Our embassy in Minsk has been working to support non-governmental organisations campaigning on death penalty issues, and my colleague the Minister of State, Jeremy Browne, whom I have already mentioned, has lent his support to a petition against the death penalty initiated by Belarusian NGOs. There is activity—indeed, I have a lot more briefing on the issue—but, in the interests of brevity, I shall say that we are doing quite a lot on this front.

My Lords, what recent representations have been made to the Government of Iran concerning their use of the death penalty, and in particular on the execution of juveniles and the use of stoning as a method of execution?

The Iran issue is of considerable concern because the human rights record of that regime is almost non-existent and certainly repulsive. We continue to make representations of a very vigorous kind. Iran executes more people than any other country in the world except for China. We know of at least 388 executions in 2009. While restating the UK’s view that capital punishment has no place in the modern world, we also regularly remind Iran of its commitments to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that the death penalty may be used only in rare cases for the most extreme crimes. Whether that reminder has any effect at this stage, I rather doubt, but we keep pressing on a very serious and dangerous situation.