Swiss step up fight to end death penalty


With the current wind of change blowing through the United States, the death penalty will be abolished there in the next 20 years, says a former US death row inmate.

This content was published on October 10, 2009 - 10:03

Joaquín José Martinez was in Switzerland on Friday as part of a series of initiatives for the World Day Against the Death Penalty, which takes place on Saturday.

Switzerland, which abolished capital punishment in 1942, is marking the event. It will host the fourth World Congress against the Death Penalty from February 24-26, 2010 in Geneva.

"I used to be a supporter of the death penalty, believing it was flawless and prevented crime, but neither is true," Martinez told journalists in Geneva.

He was sentenced to death in 1997 after being convicted of killing a drug dealer and his girlfriend, but the sentence was overturned in 2001 by the Florida Supreme Court because of irregularities in the trial.

Since his release he has been heavily involved in the fight against the death penalty.

"I was the 96th death row inmate to be released from the US and 30 more have been let out over the past eight years," said Martinez. "Something is happening there that needs to be changed."

But he believes that the death penalty could be abolished there in the next two decades.

"I believe that once the death penalty is abolished, and it won't take over 20 years, the US will become one of its strongest allies," he commented.

Constant battle

According to Amnesty International, at least 2,390 executions were carried out in 2008 in 25 countries. But the actual number worldwide is believed to be much higher.

Many of those affected are youngsters. Since 2007 24 minors have been executed in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.

The human rights group says 93 per cent of known executions in 2008 took place in just five countries - China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US. China carried out at least 1,718 executions, 72 per cent of the global total.

There are signs of a global shift away from the death penalty. A total of 139 countries have now abolished capital punishment in practice or in law, compared with 16 in 1976.

But achieving global abolition remains a constant battle. In countries that have abolished the law, like Mexico and the Philippines, pro-death penalty lobbies regularly talk about its reintroduction.

Figures from the end of December 2008 show that around 59 countries have capital punishment. The US is one of only five democracies to still carry out the practice.

Defenders of capital punishment argue that it is a national legal issue and should not be tampered with internationally.

"It remains a very entrenched issue politically," said Dante Martinelli, Switzerland's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva.

Foreign policy priority

Switzerland itself has joined forces with the European Union to call for an end to capital punishment.

"The global abolition of the death penalty is one of our foreign policy priorities," explained Rudolf Knoblauch, in charge of human rights policy at the Swiss foreign ministry.

Switzerland actively takes part in debate against the death penalty in international organisations, including the UN, the Council of Europe, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It also supports non-governmental organisations that are campaigning against it.

In December 2008 the UN General Assembly adopted an EU-backed resolution for a death penalty moratorium, on which Switzerland collaborated very closely.

"And the world congress is a concrete and tangible expression of Swiss foreign policy," said Knoblauch.

Around 1,000 government delegates, experts and civil society representatives will be converging on Geneva next year.

The meeting, which has taken place every three years since 2001, aims to improve synergies between organisations, raise awareness and maintain pressure on wavering states that retain the death penalty but do not use it.

"Countries like China and the US believe the death penalty helps fights crime but there are lots of others which still have it but risk becoming pariahs if they apply it," said Knoblauch.

"In Vietnam we see the government trying to limit the cases for which it can be applied. This is a clear sign that they want to abolish it."

Another aim of the conference is to encourage states to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a UN treaty aimed at abolishing the death penalty. Between 2001 and 2008, 22 new states signed up, taking the total number to 70.

"This is the only international legal instrument that prohibits the death penalty," said Knoblauch. "It's important that everyone joins it."

The death penalty

The Council of Europe, Europe's human rights watchdog, has declared October 10 European Day Against The Death Penalty. This comes on the same day as World Day Against The Death Penalty.

There has been no capital punishment among Council of Europe and European Union members since 1997. Abolition of the death penalty is a condition of membership of both bodies.

Switzerland has been a Council member since 1963, but is not a member of the EU.

Switzerland abolished capital punishment in 1942.

On October 18, 1940 a Swiss man was executed by decapitation in Sarnen, canton Obwalden for killing a policeman, becoming the last person to be killed under the Swiss death penalty.

A total of 139 countries have now abolished capital punishment in practice or in law, compared with 16 in 1976.

At the end of December 2008 figures showed that 59 countries still retain it, although the number of countries where executions are actually carried out has fallen from 40 to 25 in a decade. The US is one of only five democracies still to use the death penalty.

According to Amnesty International, at least 2,390 executions were carried out in 2008 in 25 countries. But the actual number is believed to be much higher.

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