An interview with Markus Löning, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy, on the current state of the campaign for the abolition of the death penalty. Published in the Berliner Zeitung, 10 April 2013
Mr Löning, last year several countries which had not carried out the death penalty for some time once again did so, including democracies like Japan and India.Is the abolition of the death penalty now more unlikely than ever?
No, I’m a bit more optimistic than that. The long term trend is moving in the right direction. There are now 140 countries which don’t have the death penalty. That’s very different from the situation just 30 years ago. But there are a few countries which worry me greatly. One is Japan, where there is clearly no public debate on the issue at all. And Taiwan has started carrying out the death penalty again after many years, as have Indonesia and India.
How do you explain the resumption of executions in so many countries? Are governments no longer afraid that carrying out the death penalty will damage a country’s image?
One standard argument I hear politicians trotting out again and again is that the death penalty is so popular with the people. There is never any proof that this is true, but it’s also very hard to prove the opposite. Nevertheless, there are quite a number of countries which say that the majority of the population wants the death penalty. But surveys like that never ask about any alternatives, and politicians don’t voice any counterarguments publicly either.
What possibilities does the international community actually have to fight the death penalty?
A great number of good arguments. And the fact that opponents of the death penalty in the US are very gradually having some success shows that these arguments do work.
What reactions do you get when you talk to foreign governments and demand the abolition of the death penalty?
The reactions differ greatly. In Viet Nam I was recently told that no executions could be carried out at present anyway because a certain drug was unavailable. In the US reactions vary widely; in China I have actually found more opponents of the death penalty than I would have expected. By contrast, one representative of Saudi Arabia wasn’t at all willing even to talk to me about the abolition of the death penalty. He just said it was God’s will.
So you haven’t given up talking to certain countries about the death penalty?
On the contrary. You can tell, for example, that what Europe says on this issue has some weight in the US. Europe has abolished the death penalty, and our countries are nonetheless safe. The US definitely acknowledges that. When I talk with the Taiwanese, I can see that they are very uncomfortable with the subject. There’s a debate underway on the issue there too. And, as I said before, I meet lots of people in China who’re in favour of abolishing the death penalty. There are judges at the Supreme Court who reject the death penalty as an inhumane form of punishment.
It’s merely symbolic, but Hesse is the only federal state here in Germany still to have the death penalty in its constitution.Could you not try to get your colleagues in the government there to amend the constitution?
Of course I have done that. There needs to be a referendum in Hesse for such a change to be made. The matter is to be tackled in the course of the next round of constitutional reform.
Interviewer: Mira Gajevic. Reproduced by kind permission of the Berliner Zeitung.