EU, UK press Guyana to end death penalty
The abolition of the death penalty in Guyana might not reflect the popular will of the people, but the European Union (EU) and the British High Commission are of the view that political leadership is required to move forward.Capital punishment is part of the statute books of more than 50 countries the world over though not all implement it. Of the more than 50 countries, 13 are in the Caribbean and all Anglo phone countries have retained the right to utilise the ultimate punishment.
Lord Navnit Dholakia, a member of the UK All Party Parliamentary Committee on Abolition of the Death Penalty though acknowledging the issue has been a cause for much debate, said politicians are best placed to take control. He said if an opinion poll is conducted in the region, it is likely that public sentiments would be against the abolition of capital punishment. But Lord Dholakia said public opinion though important, is not always the best gauge in measuring fairness.
Speaking at the opening of the Caribbean Regional Conference on the Abolition of Death Penalty at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre yesterday, the Britisher had a message for politicians. “Do we follow public opinion or do we lead? What do we mean when we talk about public opinion? Do politicians go around asking for a referendum on every issue… the answer is no,” he said.
According to him, the debates on the death penalties are often used by countries for ratcheting up other parts of the penal justice process so that harsher punishment could be dispensed. Change, he said will not come about if governments wait on the public opinion to change, but it can happen by taking the lead, in small steps.
Lord Dholakia told the gathering which included Minister of Governance Raphael Trotman, EU Ambassador, Jernej Videtic members of the diplomatic corps and civil society that in the UK, some 50 years ago, a small group of reformers were able to influence legislators against capital punishment. But today, if an opinion poll is conducted in the UK, it would probably show that more than 50 per cent of the respondents are in support of the death penalty.
He said if politicians can exploit the cause of the tension, then they can be equally be made to work toward an abolition, contending that public opinion is a flimsy ground on which to determine the sanctity of life.
“There must be more to it,” UK All Party Parliamentary Committee on Abolition of the Death Penalty member said, while noting that an abolition is not a miscarriage of justice or does it mean that perpetrators have gotten away with it.
For Lord Dholakia, a sound criminal justice system is required to handle these matters. A sound system takes all sentencing variables into account and prescribes sentence that are honest, legal decent and proportionate, he said. In the UK, he said, the people at the lower end of society are treated in the worst possible manner in the prison system.
Deputy Head of Division for the Caribbean European External Action Service Fernando Ponz Canto was also forthright in his presentation. He said from the work of criminologists, it has been found that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime as it is difficult to establish a correlation with the implementation of the penalty and a reduction in criminology.
Justice has an element of punishment, and according to Canto, it is better to get perpetrators to understand the nature of their crime rather than execute them. Some persons who have killed, he argued can change, pointing out that some have become different persons after they served their time in prison. He made it clear that while the EU is against the death penalty, it is strongly in strongly in support of fair and proportionate justice. Guyana, Canto said can take the lead, but will need political courage to do so.
Minister Trotman said in Guyana, though the death penalty remains enshrined in law, in practise there is an unwritten and unspoken moratorium in effect.
For more than two decades, Guyana has not applied punishment by the way of death. And in 2010, Trotman pointed out that through wide consultation, an amendment to the Criminal Law Offences Act was made, removing the mandatory death penalty for murder. The courts in Guyana are empowered to examine the circumstances of the crime and apply different penalties.
“The 2010 amendment brings us to a new direction and we must never be afraid to move forward,” Minister Trotman told the gathering as he welcomed the initiative by the EU and the UK to lend commitment to the processes that will engender change and see development of all paths towards human dignity and human rights. The EU has been the leading institutional actor and largest donor to fight against the death penalty.
Abolition of capital punishment is a precondition for candidate countries seeking accession to the EU. The union opposes the death penalty at all times and in all circumstances and sees it as cruel and inhumane. It believes that abolition of the penalty is essential for the protection of human dignity and for the progressive development of human rights. The International Commission Against the Death Penalty is working to make the Caribbean region free of the capital punishment, but also strengthening its justice systems.