Baroness Hamwee: The UK should never be complicit with the death penalty being used anywhere in the world
Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson on Immigration, Baroness Hamwee, writes about the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill, which has its report stage in the House of Lords today and which Labour & the Liberal Democrats seek to amend.
The death penalty is one of the greatest affronts to fundamental human rights. It is cruel, inhumane and irreversible. The UK must oppose its use anywhere in the world – and we have an opportunity to enshrine that opposition in the snappily-titled but important 'Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill', currently making its way through the House of Lords.
Widespread concerns about the morality of capital punishment – including the danger of wrongful executions – put an end to its use in the UK more than half a century ago. 141 other countries have also abolished the death penalty, in law or in practice. Yet, according to Amnesty International, almost a thousand people were executed around the world last year, and more than 20,000 are currently languishing on death row.
The UK has long opposed the use of the death penalty in other countries, and we have committed ourselves to the goal of abolishing it everywhere. We can do this by using our diplomatic influence, and also by refusing to help foreign governments with prosecutions that will result in someone being executed.
That has been longstanding government policy: the UK must get assurances that the death penalty will not be used before providing security and justice assistance to countries that still retain it. This clear policy is an important statement of Britain’s values. It is vital not only for preventing the use of the death penalty in the individual cases where we provide assistance, but also for strengthening our efforts to persuade all countries to abolish it.
Yet in July, we discovered that the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, had offered to assist the United States government in prosecuting two British citizens accused of carrying out executions for ISIL in Syria and Iraq, without seeking assurances that the death penalty will not be used. Even worse, he made that decision in secret. We only found out because his letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was leaked to the Telegraph.
There is no doubt that terrorists should face justice, but that could be achieved in this case either by prosecuting them here, under British law, or by assisting the US authorities with their prosecutions – if they guarantee that they will not seek the death penalty.
The Telegraph’s revelations – and the Government’s later admission of two other cases since 2001 where death penalty assurances were waived – have rightly provoked outcry among politicians and the public. But wringing our hands isn’t enough. We must take concrete steps to prevent this happening in the future.
And that brings us to the current Bill. The Government is seeking to give our courts new powers to require internet companies outside the UK to provide electronic data that law enforcement agencies need to investigate and prosecute serious crimes. This will only be possible with new international agreements between the UK and other governments.
These new agreements are good opportunity to enshrine our commitment not to assist in death penalty cases. That’s why my Liberal Democrat colleague Brian Paddick and I have been working with Labour peers to amend the Bill to require death penalty assurances as part of any future agreements on international data-sharing. It would remove the sort of ministerial discretion that was abused in the case we heard about in July.
This is an issue where the UK has traditionally played an important leadership role in the international community. Our unambiguous opposition to the death penalty has helped British diplomats to advance the cause of abolition at the UN and around the world. But the Home Secretary’s actions threaten that leadership role. If the UK is seen to no longer fully oppose the death penalty, it weakens our ability to persuade others to abolish it.
When proposing the private member’s bill that abolished the death penalty in Britain, the MP Sydney Silverman said:
“It is impossible to argue that the execution or non-execution of two people in England every year can make a very great contribution to the improvement of a dark and menacing world. But in this darkness and gloom into which the twentieth century civilisation has so far led us, we can at least light this small candle and see how far its tiny beams can penetrate the gloom.”
By making clear our absolute opposition to the death penalty in this Bill, we can keep that candle burning brightly today.
The Baroness Hamwee is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Immigration
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.