Transcript of Remarks by Stavros Lambrinidis at the Conference on Death Penalty held in Minsk, Belarus, on 10 March 2016 (14/03/2016)

Edited Transcript of Remarks by Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, at the Conference on Death Penalty held in Minsk, Belarus, on 10 March 2016.


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to be here at a historic moment in this very important debate, the first open international discussion on the death penalty topic in Belarus.

Let me begin by looking at the death penalty trends in Europe and around the world: Once you examine them, you will realize that the debate on the moratorium or the abolition of the death penalty has become much less controversial as the years have gone by. The vast majority of countries today in the world have either in law abolished the death penalty or established moratoriums.

Just to give you a sense of the numbers: In 1945, only eight countries had abolished the death penalty. Thirty years later, in 1978, that number had increased to only 16. But in 2016, it was over 150; today, a hundred and fifty countries in the world have abolished the death penalty or stopped it through moratoriums.

Eight – sixteen – a hundred and fifty…

It is increasingly the case that countries in the world abolish as opposed to don’t. In the case of Europe, the European Union, of course, all its twenty-eight Member States have abolished the death penalty. But the Council of Europe as well has – everyone in Europe has abolished the death penalty. And it is very important that we have the chance today to have this reasoned discussion here in Belarus, the only European country that still retains it.

Now, having looked at the trends, let us look at the “who”. Who is abolishing the death penalty? Are there any particular traits in the cultures, in the religions, in the political systems of those countries that are abolishing? The answer to that question is a resounding “No”. Neither those that have abolished the death penalty or placed moratoriums – the vast majority --, nor those that still retain the penalty have any unique unifying cultural or political characteristics. Russia and Germany, Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom, Greece and Azerbaijan, but also South Africa, Morocco, and so many other diverse countries don’t apply the death penalty. In a similar cultural polyphony, the majority of the United States, but also Saudi Arabia and Iran, still apply the death penalty. So when it comes to the “who”, one thing is clear: This is not a regional, cultural, or political divide, a case of the “West” versus the “East,” or the “South” versus the “North.”

When one looks at the countries that have abolished, one more thing becomes clear: All of them are still plagued by very serious crime. In Paris a few months ago there was the most heinous terrorist attack recently in Europe. And yet France was and remains a country that has abolished the death penalty. In other words, countries that have stopped executing have decided to do so in spite of the fact that they often face as much serious crime as those who continue to execute. Retentionist countries cannot claim that they need the death penalty because they are somehow plagued by more serious crimes than others. And it would, of course, be absurd to claim that abolitionist countries somehow “like” criminals more than others and thus choose to keep them alive. So it is something more, something different, that influences a country's decision on the death penalty.

I submit to you that looking at the facts of what the death penalty achieves and what it doesn’t can help us understand what has led such a large number of countries to abolish it or to put in place moratoriums.

So after having examined the trends, and having looked at the “who” has abolished or has in place moratoriums, let us now look at the “why.” Why has abolition become the norm in the majority of countries?

Well, I can speak to you about Europe, and I will very briefly, but, of course, different countries around the world have different experiences and histories and even in the European Union we have different experiences. It is quite interesting to see that in the EU you have had the anti-death penalty movement more vibrant and the death penalty gradually abandoned usually after major war and destruction -- after World War II the discussion gradually became much more earnest, for example -- and also after the fall of either repressive or dictatorial regimes. The extreme arbitrariness of extreme power got many Europeans to realize that the death penalty could also be arbitrarily imposed.

Take for example the case in Greece, my own country. The death penalty existed until 1974. Between 1967 and 1974 Greece had a terrible dictatorship. In 1974 the dictatorship fell. And the dictators were brought to court. And the court tried them and found them guilty and sentenced them to death. The prime minister of Greece at that time, a man called Konstantinos Karamanlis, said: “We will not execute them, we will commute their death sentences to life in prison.” The public opinion in Greece at the time, as you can imagine, was initially shocked, if not furious. In the country where democracy was born, dictators took over. And, yet, a court decision to put them to death was reversed by the decision of the leader of the country who said “No”. But in a matter of weeks – not months, not years – the public opinion had turned entirely around. People were now proud that, indeed, the oldest democracy in the world had managed, in principle, to punish in the harshest way possible, through a life sentence, the dictators without, however, falling to their level, without killing them.

In France, when President Mitterrand abolished the death penalty, back in the 80s, the public opinion was against as well. But he took the leadership position, and, as in the case of Greece, the majority of the public opinion changed entirely very quickly thereafter.

So, one “why”, why you abandon the death penalty, has to do with your personal experience, with your country’s experiences, with your region’s experience. And with strong leaders who can take the moral high ground.

But in addition to any personal or historical reasons, there are also facts that one looks at – and laws – and reaches the conclusion much more often than not, that the death penalty should not be applied -- as we can discern from the wide world-wide trend towards abolition.

The first fact is the international legal obligation to the right to life. Governments have the obligation to preserve it, not to take it away. Similarly, governments have the obligation under international law to not impose cruel and unusual punishment even on the worst criminals. These obligations stem from the fundamental “human dignity” of every human being, even of someone who has committed the most atrocious crime, as recognized in human rights discourse.

“But,” some people argue, “how can you say this?! Someone who raped and murdered a young child, someone who placed a bomb that killed hundreds of innocents… What human dignity do they have left? Why should we respect or care about that?”

I answer to those who tell me this: “I understand your anger. I can talk to you about international obligations and norms, but you will still be angry. So I ask you for a moment to think not about the human dignity of any criminal, but about your human dignity.”

Dear friends, as much as I may hate him, I refuse to execute the worst killer in the world, not because of their dignity, but because of mine. I will not allow a killer to turn me into a killer. I will not give them that satisfaction. I will not give them that power over me.

But there are other facts too that weigh into the death penalty debate, and I am sure that they will be unfolded in the next hours in this exceptional conference, but here are three of them, briefly:

First, the death penalty does not deter the most serious crimes.

Extensive studies, done in different countries and regions of the world, have shown that there is no scientific evidence to prove that the death penalty has a direct correlation with reducing serious crime, or that abolishing it increases serious crime. For all those who want to ensure that whatever punishment is meted out, it is at least a punishment that will reduce serious future crime, the death penalty has not been proven to be such a punishment.

Second, civilized societies don’t only want to punish, as they should, the guilty. They also have an obligation to ensure that they do not punish the innocent.

Yet, the death penalty, like any other penalty, is imposed by people:  By human courts, by human judges, by human witnesses who say, “I saw him or her, he did it” or, “I didn’t see him, he didn't do it.” By human defense lawyers who may be good or not, by police and public prosecutors who may be biased or not.

As a consequence, no court system in the world is perfect. But on the other hand, the death penalty is, in its own terrible way, “perfect,” in that it eliminates a defendant once and for all. So, it is irreversible. If a mistake is made, and if the mistake is discovered, that person who was wrongfully executed can never be brought back. On the other hand, if that person is in life in prison, and a mistake is made, they can be let go, as they should.

Have courts been proven to convict innocent people to death? The answer is, yes, in hundreds of cases. Even the United States that still retains the death penalty and has in place perhaps the longest and most extensive and expensive appeals procedures, and in other countries with advanced jurisdictions as well, it has been revealed over the years through DNA and other uncovered evidence that hundreds of people have been sentenced to death wrongfully. One can only expect that the problem of false convictions would be even greater in jurisdictions that are not well trained, not well funded and resourced, or not independent.

In sum, the irreversibility of the punishment, that can convict not only certified killers but also innocent defendants to death, should make it clear that it should be abolished or a moratorium be imposed as a first step.

Third, the death penalty discriminates against the poor and marginalized citizens in a society and is thus patently socially unfair.  Virtually everywhere in the world where the death penalty is applied, if you look at the statistics, you see that it is mostly imposed on the poor (who can least afford good lawyers), the marginalized, the minorities. Whether I am black in the United States or poor in another country… Think about it. It makes sense. Because, as we discussed above, human beings are the ones making the decisions to prosecute and to convict. And thus racial and other biases can never be taken out of the equation.

In other words, it is also deeply socially unjust to have the death penalty in place. 

There are more facts to discuss against the death penalty, but let us turn our attention to another argument that often comes up. Many people will say, “I understand the facts, but what about our public opinion, which wants the death penalty….”

I would argue to you, first, given the example of Karamanlis, given the example of Mitterrand and so many others, as discussed above, that, indeed, the public opinion is important to this debate. The people in our countries have opinions and voices.  But, of course, strong leadership is not always, especially on issues as sensitive as this, one that follows but one that leads public opinion. It is also difficult to place the burden for such a complicated question on the public, because depending on the facts and the way you ask the question, the views produced can be very different.

If you ask people the question, “Are you in favor of someone who raped a ten-year-old child and killed it to be put to death?”, then chances are that the answer would be “yes.” If, on the other hand, you ask someone, “Given the fact that hundreds of innocent people have been proven to have been put to death, and we could never bring them back, would you be in favor of abolishing the death penalty?”, then chances are that the same people might again tell you “yes.”

So how one asks the question is very important. And while Sanaka is absolutely right, the death penalty debate should not be politicized, nevertheless politicians and governments who have to make these decisions also have to be very careful not to pass the responsibility for this difficult issue to the people. But to accept the responsibility and to talk to the people, to listen to the people, and also to educate and lead as well. Not simply to say, “Ok, well, we have nothing more we can do. You know, the people spoke, so it’s over.”

Dear friends, finally, the experience in Belarus:

This is an important debate and discussion today because given the trends and facts in Europe and the world, an interesting question that I would like to discover the answer to may not be so much why has Europe abolished the death penalty but rather why is Belarus still retaining it, why it hasn’t so far abolished it or imposed a moratorium itself.  Why is Belarus the only country in Europe that still retains it? I hope that the facts today will be able to move this debate forward.

I know that Belarus’s constitution has a provision that stipulates that the death penalty is there until abolished, in other words, a provision that implies that it is temporary and that it will be abolished. The question is not so much whether but, rather, when. And, of course, the Constitutional Court has ruled on the right of the parliament or the president to make a decision on a moratorium on the death penalty themselves and to take leadership on that.

There was indeed a referendum on the death penalty in the country twenty years ago, and that was underlined to me yesterday when I met with the Parliament. It is true, and, as I said, it is very important to listen to the voice of the people and to discuss with them, but also to keep in mind how those questions – what asked and how asked – can influence the answer, as can the circumstances at the time, and how they may have changed.

At the time of the referendum, there was at least one very important fact that doesn’t exist today, and that is that at that time in Belarus the law provided for no life sentence. The maximum sentence, and I stand to be corrected if wrong, was at the time fifteen years. And only two years after the referendum did the law finally establish a life-in-prison sentence.

And, indeed, this provision is very important. Because all those of us who say that the worst criminals should not be executed, all those who have abolished the death penalty, are not saying that those convicted should be let out to roam free. We say that you need to have a life sentence, the strongest sentence possible, which you actually apply, for those people that a rule-of-law court after independent and impartial procedures finds guilty.

Today Belarus has a life sentence in its books. It is a very different scenario than twenty years ago. And I expect that a very open debate, like the one we are having today, would probably have brought about a different understanding of the total picture.

Now, at the same time, it is very important to bring this discussion closer to the people. As Sanaka said, “After this conference today in Minsk we have to go to the grassroots. We have to discuss all over.” This is a process that will take time. And it will take also the participation not of politicians alone but also of the people and of civil society.

I met yesterday with members of civil society including members of Vyasna who have been working for many years on the issue of the death penalty. It is very important for everyone who has had experience in this field in Belarus to be able to participate in our discussions, and to be able then to go and sound out and talk to the people on the ground, because this is the kind of discussion that is necessary in a democracy.

Also, I would hope that it would be self-evident that there needs to be at least a temporary moratorium on the issue of death sentencing and executions, while this important process of discussion and examination goes on in Belarus. It would make little sense to have embarked on this discussion to examine whether or not to adopt a moratorium and, at the same time, to have courts pass down death sentences, or to have people executed, while this discussion is taking place.

Belarus has made a very important decision, on which I congratulate the foreign ministry, the foreign minister himself, and of course the president and the government as a whole, which is to have a very serious and thorough debate on this topic.  It has to be done – I hope, I would believe – in an atmosphere where the death penalty, at least throughout the debate and, hopefully, afterwards, would not be applied.

Dear friends, one final thought:

We have all seen around the world today a different kind of execution. Those who commit it think they are absolutely justified to do so. There’s no doubt in their minds that they are right.  They cut heads off people, and they hold them in front of cameras on YouTube. All of us who have seen this have been shocked. Some people are trying to turn this world into a very bloody one.  They are trying to make us insensitized to revenge, insensitized to violence. They are trying to drag us down to their level.  Are we going to let them?

I submit to you that it is a civilized nation’s, a civilized people’s obligation to say, “No… You may kill; but we won’t… As much as we hate you, we won’t…” And that doesn’t just go for them. It goes for everyone.

Some people say, “I am not asking for too much when I ask to retain the death penalty. I only ask for justice, for ‘an eye for an eye.’” But think about it, if we apply this principle too far – an eye for an eye – in the end, we will all be blind.

I think, and I hope, that we can welcome Belarus as one of the champions in this effort, as one of the champions of a moratorium on the death penalty, and I will be very pleased, very proud, if we can count on Belarus as a partner in this effort.

Thank you very much.