My Lords, the Government regularly raise the death penalty with countries that retain it and fund civil society campaigns around the world in support of abolition. There is some progress. Last year, only 21 countries carried out executions, which was a decrease by more than one-third over the past decade. However, more needs to be done and we are working towards ensuring that more countries than ever support a resolution against the death penalty at the United Nations later this year.
I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer. Will he confirm that the newly appointed Minister of Justice in Japan has said that he takes a cautious stance on the death penalty? What efforts are the Government making to nudge him down the path towards at least a moratorium? Does the Minister further agree that getting abolition would be easier if it were not for the bad example set by the United States?
My Lords, it is my understanding that Japan executed a man and a woman on 27 September. The Government immediately issued a statement expressing our regret at this action. They took that opportunity again to urge the Japanese authorities to impose a moratorium and have made regular representations to the Japanese authorities on the death penalty. I understand that the noble Lord has visited Japan to take forward the case for abolition of the death penalty.
I do not think that we have any evidence that our efforts are hampered by the United States. It is also the Government’s position that we make representations to the United States on the abolition of the death penalty.
My Lords, I chair the All-Party Group for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. I should like to ask the Minister about Belarus. I am sure he is aware that in Belarus people on death row are told that they are to be executed a few moments before it happens. They are then shot in the back of the head. They are buried in secret so that their relatives do not know where they are. Has the Minister made any efforts to persuade the Government of Belarus to stop these horrible practices?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group and to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I understand that the noble Baroness chaired an event yesterday to take forward this issue. With specific reference to Belarus, I am sure that the House will share her appalled reaction to what has happened there. As to representations to Belarus, we recognise that it is the only country in Europe to retain the death penalty. It is one of the priority countries that the United Kingdom has identified for lobbying against the death penalty. We continue to lobby the Belarus authorities to encourage a moratorium on the death penalty as a first step towards abolition, and to impress on them that abolition of, or even a moratorium on, the death penalty would certainly open a way for improved relations with the Council of Europe.
My Lords, will my noble and learned friend consider drawing the attention of countries which have either recently reintroduced or are considering reintroducing the death penalty to the statistical evidence published by the Equality Trust? It shows that violent crime and murder are strongly correlated to the level of inequality in a society. Will the Government particularly ensure that heads of state such as President Jammeh of Gambia, who believes that murder rates can be reduced by executions, are made aware of this evidence?
My Lords, my noble friend raises an important issue. I am sure that that is one of the arguments that is put forward. He mentioned the United Nations. Considerable effort is being made, including by the United Kingdom Government, to ensure that when the matter comes before the General Assembly of the United Nations in the next few weeks we can increase the number of countries that will make a stand against the death penalty.
It was highly regrettable that executions took place in Gambia after a number of years when there had been no executions. Again, I assure your Lordships’ House that immediately following that execution, the United Kingdom Government, on behalf of the European Union, made strenuous representations to the Gambian Government.
My Lords, Iran is one of the priority countries that have been identified. The House will know what I mean when I say that sometimes to get international engagement with Iran is not the easiest thing in the world. I would certainly utterly condemn execution generally, but particularly the execution of juveniles, as the noble Baroness says. We would want to call on the Iranian authorities to cease their use of the death penalty and follow the global trend towards abolition. It is not just the United Kingdom Government who want to see that; we engage with the international community generally to put pressure on Iran.
My Lords, did the Minister see the resolution of the European Parliament calling for an immediate end to public executions in North Korea? I stood a few days ago at Tumen on the river Tumen, which separates North Korea from China, a place where people are summarily executed as they try to flee from their country. Members of your Lordships’ House will be aware that China repatriates people who escape from North Korea, some of whom are thrown into gulags, where there are 200,000 people, and some of whom are executed. Will the Minister tell the House what representations we are making in our bilateral discussions with China about the use of the death penalty there and about repatriations to North Korea; and whether we have we raised these matters directly with the North Koreans?
My Lords, I am not familiar with the European Parliament resolution to which the noble Lord refers, but I can confirm that we regularly make representations to the Chinese Government on the death penalty and last raised this issue with the Chinese in May this year. We will continue to do so whenever we can. I regret that I cannot give a more specific answer with regard to people who are repatriated to North Korea, but I shall ensure that the noble Lord’s concerns on that specific point are drawn to my colleagues’ attention in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Sri Lanka, which of course retains the death penalty, comes up for peer review at the UN Human Rights Council in November. It has recently advertised for hangmen. What efforts are Her Majesty’s Government making to encourage Sri Lanka to desist, either unilaterally or through the Commonwealth?
My Lords, as I said to my noble friend Lord Avebury, we see the United Nations as an important forum for bringing international pressure. My noble friend Lady Warsi joined in a meeting organised by the French Government in New York a couple of weeks ago, and I think that the meeting chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, yesterday had much of its focus on what can be done to ensure that steps are taken at the United Nations. Of course, we also believe that our engagement with the Commonwealth gives us a good forum and a good number of opportunities to raise these issues. Indeed, at last year’s Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary addressed a gathering on the issue of the death penalty and the case for abolition.