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The EU in the Fight Against the Death Penalty

Last week the Politics and International Relations Sub-Committee hosted an event on “The EU in the Fight Against the Death Penalty.” The event was attended by a variety of people, including stagiaires from all EU institutions, and interns from the UN and NGOs based in Brussels.


Speakers at the conference included Maya Foa, Deputy Director of the Death Penalty Team at Reprieve, and a member of the Commission's Group of Experts assisting with the review of the EU’s “Torture Regulation.” Also speaking was Gemma Amran, Policy Officer on  death penalty issues at the Fundamental Rights Unit of the Justice DG, and Antonis Alexandridis, a diplomat from the European External Action Service, and a senior figure regarding the EU Guidelines on the Death Penalty, and negotiations on the UN resolution calling for a moratorium.


The conference initially got off to a shaky start, with security refusing to allow Ms. Foa and other non-EU attendees through the security barrier of the Madou building, where the event was due to be held. “I don’t know what happened” says Gabriela Belmar-Valencia, who organised the speakers for the conference. “I got confirmation that everyone attending would have access to the building from the Traineeship Office last week. I even brought the emails from the Traineeship Office confirming this with me.”


“We will definitely take this up with the Traineeship Office” adds Ioanna Demosthenous, the Sub-Committee’s General Coordinator. “I fetched someone from the Traineeship Office to have a word with security, and they still refused let people through! It was unbelievable! Luckily we’re creative thinkers in the Politics and International Relations Sub-Committee...”


The event was eventually held in the Foyer of the Madou Building, under the watchful eyes of angry and embarrassed security guards. Approximately 40 people either sat on the floor, or stood in a circle around the three speakers for the full one and a half hour event.


“It was pretty unconventional” says Gabriela, “I half-expected everyone to leave, but the fact that they all stayed is a testament to the quality of our speakers, and also how passionate people are about the death penalty.”


After a further clash with security over the issue of photographs (Sub-Committee member Martin Ambrozi was yelled at by guards for taking pictures of the speakers), Ms. Foa got the conference underway by describing her work at Reprieve. Reprieve is a legal action charity which is partly funded by the European Commission to assist British and European nationals facing the death penalty around the world. Foa herself runs the SLIP (the Stop Lethal Injection Project) and SAFE (Stop Aid for Executions) projects at Reprieve.


SLIP was set up in 2010 to help pharmaceutical companies prevent their drugs from being used in executions in the US. Shortages of key lethal injection drugs had led to certain US states seeking supplies of these drugs from Europe and elsewhere. Manufacturers were dismayed that their medicines, designed to improve and save lives, were being used by the US to execute people.


Foa described how Reprieve works closely with manufacturers, governments, and the European Commission to prevent the abuse of medicines in executions. For example, in November 2010, an export control was put in place on the export of lethal injection drugs from the UK to the US, and in December 2011, the European Commission enacted similar legislation to prevent exports of lethal injection drugs from the whole of Europe to the US.


Ms. Foa’s Stop Aid for Executions Project aims to encourage governments to place conditions on aid for anti-narcotics measures, to ensure that such aid does not lead to executions (as a number of states receiving counternarcotics aid impose the death penalty for drugs offences, in breach of international human rights standards).


Ms. Foa highlighted the example of the UK, which spends vast sums of money on anti-narcotics aid, in order to stem the flow drugs from the ‘Golden Crescent’ (Afghanistan via Pakistan and Iran) which maintains the death penalty for drug offences. The UK has spent millions on counternarcotics in Iran, as well as providing direct assistance to the Iranian Anti-Narcotic Police through training and intelligence sharing. Horribly, children as young as twelve are hanged for drugs offences in Iran. Counternarcotics aid has also resulted in a number of British nationals facing death sentences in Pakistan. Ms. Foa also highlighted that in practice, most of the funds expended by Europe on counternarcotics aid catch small fry, drugs mules, rather than the kingpins, undermining Europe’s stance on the death penalty while rarely making an impact on the networks using mules.


Gemma Amran was the second person to speak at the conference, testing the audience on their general knowledge of abolition within Europe. She highlighted the fact that abolition is a relatively recent phenomenon, revealing the surprising fact that the most recent EU State to abolish the death penalty (Latvia) did so as recently as 2012. She gave a comprehensive summary of the EU’s human rights obligations with respect to the death penalty, stressing the EU’s commitment to do more than simply ending executions within its own territory.


“Abolition [of the death penalty] is a vital aspect of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, and is an issue around which Europe is genuinely united. This shows just how important abolition is to the EU, because, as we know, Europe doesn’t always agree on much! The EU has its own Charter on Fundamental Rights, incorporating standards protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which prohibit use of the death penalty. But abolition within Europe is not enough. The EU believes it must dissociate itself completely from the death penalty, so we stop exports of drugs and equipment which may be used in executions, lobby for moratoria in states which still have the death penalty, and voice our condemnation when executions take place. And we really do have to thank the Charter for reinforcing our obligations on this point – it has made sure that the EU takes our role in advancing the cause of abolition seriously.”


The last to speak at the conference was Antonis Alexandridis. He spoke about the diplomatic work undertaken by the EEA in relation to the death penalty. The EEAS has three main approaches in relation to its lobbying on abolition. It will firstly encourage abolition in states where there is a real chance of success, for example where there has been long moratoria. In other states, where the abolition movement is not so strong, political elites may be encouraged to introduce a moratorium, in the hope that this may eventually lead to abolition. Where states are unlikely to either abolish capital punishment or impose a moratorium, the EEAS will emphasise international standards, which limit capital punishment to only the most serious crimes (accepted as only those involving lethal consequences), where all other internationally accepted due process standards are met.


Mr. Alexandridis highlighted that the EU Guidelines on the Death Penalty, the most recent text of which has been adopted within the last couple of weeks, reinforce these international standards, covering issues such as the scope of death-eligible offences, the requirement of transparency regarding the death penalty, due process standards, and the exclusion of vulnerable defendants, such as juveniles, the mentally disordered, pregnant women and new mothers.
After he finished talking, there was a lively Q&A session on the issues raised by the speakers, which only ended at 20:00, when security ordered everyone out of the building.


undercoverThe evening was a great success. Even the initial clashes with security did not dampen the atmosphere, and Martin Ambrozi managed to sneak a few illicit photographs of the event despite the watchful gaze of the security guards. Attendee Ciaran Lyng laughed off the uncomfortable surroundings: “it was like going back to Ancient Greece, with everyone gathered in a Socratic circle. The Sub-Committee did a really good job. The speakers were amazing, and security must feel pretty embarrassed at being so awkward.”


The conference’s organiser, Gabriela, was also pleased with the way the event turned out. “The speakers told me they had a really great time – Antonis even asked me ‘when can we do this again?!’ And the Q&A was very energetic. People got really involved in the discussion. When I first proposed this event, a lot of people said ‘what’s the point? Europe’s abolished the death penalty. It’ll be singing to the choir.’ But the EU has a really important part to play in abolition beyond getting rid of the death penalty in its own back yard. Now more people are more aware of the EU’s role, and can appreciate this work.”


The Politics and International Relations Sub-Committee seeks to raise awareness of current affairs within the stage community in Brussels.

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