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Campaigning against torture and the death penalty

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Many countries in the world still hand down death sentences and carry out executions. Germany is campaigning worldwide for the abolition of this cruel form of punishment.

Protest against the death penalty
Protest against the death penalty© dpa/picture-alliance

Even though resistance to the death penalty has steadily grown during the last few years, death sentences are still handed down and executions carried out in many states around the world. Germany opposes the death penalty on ethical and moral grounds as well as for reasons of legal policy and is campaigning worldwide for the abolition of this cruel form of punishment. The Federal Government’s engagement in the fight against torture and abuse, too, is resolute and untiring. Together with its EU partners, it is striving to strengthen the international mechanisms to combat torture. The primary goals are the worldwide abolition of torture and the complete rehabilitation of torture victims.

In favour of abolishing the death penalty worldwide

The death penalty is not expressly prohibited under international law. Only the minimum norms enshrined under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are internationally binding. Under this Article, death sentences may be imposed only for the most serious crimes, and all safeguards to ensure due process under the rule of law must be observed. Carrying out the death sentence on people who were minors at the time of the crime and on pregnant women is prohibited. In ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, however, a total of 85 states to date – including Germany and all other EU member states – have undertaken to abolish the death penalty. In Europe, Protocol 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which entered into force in 2003, also obligates those member states of the Council of Europe that have signed and ratified it to abolish the death penalty in all circumstances.

Belarus is the last state in Europe which carries out executions. Outside Europe, too, there is a trend towards the abolition of capital punishment. The death penalty has been abolished in almost all Latin American countries, but also in central Asia and many states in southern Africa. A total of more than 130 states have abolished the death penalty or refrain from carrying it out, whilst some 50 states continue to carry out executions.

EU policy on fighting the death penalty

Germany and the EU actively campaign against the death penalty
Germany and the EU actively campaign against the death penalty© dpa/picture-alliance

Germany and the other EU member states have been actively campaigning against the death penalty for many years. This campaign is based on the Guidelines to EU Policy towards Third Countries on the Death Penalty. These guidelines define the campaign against the death penalty as a central human rights issue within the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Furthermore, they set out principles and criteria for practical action, for example on the question as to when the EU makes public statements or in what form it intervenes vis-à-vis other states. The aim is to prevent the imposition of the death penalty in individual cases, as well as to influence the practice in individual countries and, for instance, to bring about a moratorium on or abolition of the death penalty.

UN Convention against Torture

Germany has been a State party to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment since 1990 and to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture since 2009. Germany is thus subject, on the one hand, to the strict international control exercised by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, to which the States parties must submit regular reports on the national measures they have taken to comply with the Convention. On the other, it has committed itself to establishing a national preventive mechanism (NPM) as envisaged in the Optional Protocol. In Germany, the NPM is the National Agency for the Prevention of Torture.

The UN Convention against Torture is also the basis and reference document for EU and Council of Europe policies and measures against torture and inhuman treatment.

Europe – instruments to combat torture

With the adoption of the guidelines for EU policy towards third countries on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment on 9 April 2001, the EU created an instrument which strengthened its commitment to the worldwide abolition of torture. A jointly developed global action plan, whose key points were implemented during Germany’s EU Presidency, consisted of numerous demarches in third states in which the EU addressed the problem of the use of torture and called for its abolition. The EU guidelines also help ensure that the fight against torture and its abolition is a fixture in dialogues with third states which the EU conducts as an organisation and the member states at bilateral level. The German Government, too, is obliged to adhere to the EU guidelines in its actions. The focus is on individual cases.

European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Council of Europe also has a convention against torture: the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which entered into force on 1 February 1989. The Convention provided for the establishment of a committee of independent experts to review the human rights situation of individuals in States parties who have been deprived of their freedom. To this end, visits are made to prisons, psychiatric institutions and other establishments in which people are detained. The reports on these visits, which contain concrete recommendations for action, are published with the consent of the state in question.

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

As early as 1985, the Commission on Human Rights, as it then was, appointed a Special Rapporteur to examine all issues relevant to torture. His mandate covers all countries, irrespective of whether a state has (yet) ratified the Convention against Torture. He reports on the situation in individual countries which he visits, like all Special Rapporteurs, at the country’s invitation, and draws public and media attention to specific urgent cases.