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EU guidelines on the death penalty

These guidelines present the objectives and elements of European Union (EU) policy on the universal abolition of the death penalty. Where abolition is rejected, the EU promotes the use of minimum standards in relation to the death penalty.

ACT

EU Guidelines on the Death Penalty : revised and updated version. General Affairs Council of 16 June 2008 [Not published in the Official Journal].

SUMMARY

Having signed the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), all European Union (EU) countries are committed to the permanent abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances. They are also committed to the application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, whereby “no one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed”.

In order to increase respect for human rights and enhance human dignity in non-EU countries, the EU aims, as an integral part of its human rights policy, to:

  • strive towards the universal abolition of the death penalty, with the immediate establishment of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty if necessary;
  • call for a reduction in the use of the death penalty where it still exists and insist that it is carried out in line with certain minimum standards, at the same time aiming to obtain accurate data on the number of sentenced and executed persons.

Method of work

Key elements of the EU’s approach include general demarches, where the issue of the death penalty is raised in dialogues and consultations with non-EU countries. The focus is on the non-EU country’s:

  • judicial system, its functioning and transparency;
  • international commitments to not use the death penalty;
  • death penalty policy developments;
  • human rights situation as reported by relevant international mechanisms.

The EU may also make specific demarches, on a case-by-case basis, in individual cases where it becomes aware of violations of minimum standards.

Furthermore, the EU will act on the basis of human rights reports from EU Heads of Mission, which should include an analysis on the application and use of the death penalty in the countries concerned and an evaluation of the impact of EU activities.

The EU aims to encourage non-EU countries to abolish the death penalty by promoting the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In cases where this is not possible, it will work towards its aim through other initiatives, such as by:

  • promoting the ratification of other international human rights instruments, in particular those concerning the death penalty;
  • promoting bilateral and multilateral cooperation with a view to establishing a fair and impartial judicial process for criminal cases.

The EU will also aim at promoting in relevant multilateral fora initiatives for the introduction of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty and its eventual abolition. Furthermore, it will encourage the relevant international organisations to take action that will promote the ratification of and compliance with international treaties and standards on death penalty.

Minimum standards

Where the death penalty is maintained, the EU will promote the application of the following minimum standards:

  • imposing capital punishment only for the most serious intentional and violent crimes;
  • imposing capital punishment only for a crime for which the death penalty was prescribed when it was committed; if a lighter penalty was prescribed beforehand, this must be imposed;
  • not imposing capital punishment for persons who were below the age of 18 when committing the crime, pregnant women, new mothers or persons with mental disorders;
  • requiring clear and convincing evidence and a fair trial where the defendant benefits from legal assistance;
  • providing the right to appeal to a higher jurisdiction and to submit an individual complaint; anyone sentenced to death should have the right to seek commutation of the sentence;
  • carrying out capital punishment that inflicts the minimum possible suffering.

Background

In 1998, EU countries decided to strengthen their activities in opposition to the death penalty. To this end, they adopted the first version of these guidelines. At that time, capital punishment had been abolished in most EU countries and those that had not yet abolished it were no longer applying it. Since then, all countries of the Union have ratified Protocol No 6 to the ECHR concerning the Abolition of the Death Penalty. It should also be noted that abolition forms one of the conditions of EU membership.

Consequently, the EU decided to intensify its initiatives within international bodies, mainly the United Nations (UN). In 2007, its co-sponsored resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty was adopted at the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly. This resolution calls for the use of minimum standards in safeguarding the rights of those facing the death penalty, the progressive restriction of the use of the death penalty and the establishment of a moratorium on executions. Furthermore, the EU works in collaboration with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), in particular through the financial instrument for the promotion of democracy and human rights in the world.

Last updated: 30.09.2010
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