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UK Government policy on abolition of the death penalty

Published Friday, January 29, 2016

This Commons Library briefing outlines changes around the Government's policy on abolition of the death penalty, following a campaign saying that the policy has been abandoned.

Many people are concerned that the UK Government has abandoned its Death Penalty Strategy.

No update to the 2010-15 strategy paper

The current Government has decided not to publish an updated version of the Coalition Government’s document HMG Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty 2010-2015 (revised October 2011). It has been challenged about this frequently over the last few months, and has responded that 'there is no change in policy'.

This answer to a Parliamentary Question in House of Lords on 25 January 2016 gives more detail: 

Capital Punishment: Written question HL5007

Asked by The Marquess of Lothian on 13 January 2016:          

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether it remains their policy to work towards the global abolition of the death penalty; if so, why they have not renewed their previous Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty (2010–15); and why Saudi Arabia was not included on the list of priority countries in that strategy.

Answered by Baroness Anelay of St Johns on 25 January 2016:

There has been no change in the British Government’s policy of working towards global abolition of the death penalty.

This Government pursues human rights in their universality – a more ambitious and coherent approach than focusing on a small number of single issues. Our commitment to the Rules Based International Order underpins this work, including through bilateral and multilateral support to global efforts to abolish the death penalty. Because of our wider focus, we do not intend to publish a new strategy specific to the death penalty; but on 18 January we published a strategy for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)’s Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy, which shows how work to abolish the death penalty is important under all three of the strategy’s new themes. The FCO’s death penalty-related work will also be covered in future instalments of the FCO’s Annual Human Rights Report.

With regard to Saudi Arabia, the criteria used in 2010 to draw up the list of priority countries within the “HMG Strategy for the Abolition of the Death Penalty 2010-2015” are set out in that document. A copy of the Strategy is available in the Library of the House. The previous Government decided that available resources should be focused on countries ready to engage in a meaningful dialogue about capital punishment and open to the idea of reform. Many of the countries prioritised in 2010 have implemented reforms in the intervening five years.

Changes to the FCO annual human rights report

The FCO’s annual Human Rights and Democracy report lists ‘countries of concern’ (including Saudi Arabia). The March 2015 report, covering 2014, includes a specific section in chapter V on abolition of the death penalty, and most of the ‘countries of concern’ sections also include a section on the death penalty.

The report also mentions that the FCO supports the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, and funded lobbying visits by its members to the United States, Vietnam and Suriname in 2014.

It looks as if the phrase ‘countries of concern’ has now been replaced by ‘Human Rights and Democracy Priority Countries’ (see Strategy for the FCO’s Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy, Annex A). There may also be other changes to the next annual human rights report, as a result of wider changes to the Government's human rights policy (see below).

Wider changes to human rights policy

The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, set out the Government’s new approach to protecting human rights in December 2015 in an op-ed called Standing up for human rights in a British way. It talks of ‘quiet and continued engagement behind the scenes’ rather than ‘lecturing people in public’; an approach that ‘appeals to others’ enlightened self-interest and is sensitive to their culture and history’; and ensuring that ‘human rights sit within the everyday work of the Foreign Office’.

For 2016, three ‘themes’ replace the previous eight ‘thematic priorities’ for the FCO’s human rights and democracy work:

For 2016, Ministers have agreed a new approach to the FCO’s human rights and democracy work in line with manifesto commitments. The previous approach of eight “thematic priorities”, under the Human Rights and Democracy Programme, risked implying a hierarchy of rights, and reduced our flexibility to respond to developments and to capture all the human rights work carried out by our overseas network.

The FCO has therefore reconfigured its human rights and democracy work around three interconnected themes, which will also provide the basis for our funding strategy under the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy:

  • Democratic values and the rule of law - Uphold universal rights, democracy and the rule of law as key building blocks for more secure and prosperous societies
  • The rules-based international order - Support an effective rules-based international order that stands up for universal rights
  • Human rights for a stable world - Promote a more stable world by upholding universal rights in tackling conflict and extremism

Projects that aim to achieve systemic change, strengthen institutions and improve governance based on human rights and the rule of law, are strongly encouraged.  The fundamental aim of the strategy is to treat both causes and symptoms.

[Strategy for the FCO’s Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy, 18 January 2016] 

The abolition of the death penalty had been the first of the eight thematic priorities under the previous Human Rights and Democracy Programme, and is now part of theme two, ‘Uphold universal rights, democracy, and the rule of law’.

Ministerial responsibility and funding

Baroness Anelay, who was Minister for Human Rights in the Coalition Government, still has human rights as part of her ministerial portfolio.

The Foreign Secretary’s advisory group on human rights was still in place following the 2015 election. It is not clear whether the advisory group still has a sub-group on abolition of the death penalty.

Government spending on projects on the abolition of the death penalty does not appear to have been reduced since May 2015.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7489

Author: Arabella Lang

Topics: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human rights

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