Q&A : The European Union and death penalty in Taiwan
The European Union maintains a principled position against the death penalty. All member countries of the EU must have abolished it before they can join the Union. The EU also works in favour of abolition worldwide, and conducts activities to this effect in a number of countries where capital punishment is still used.
After five executions took place in Taiwan on 29 April 2014, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, made a statement deploring the executions and calling on Taiwan to reinstate a moratorium on executions . EU statements had also been issued in the past after the executions in 2010 , and 2011 , 2012, and 2013 by the High Representative and also by members of the European Parliament.
Why is the EU against the death penalty ?
The EU considers that capital punishment is inhumane and unnecessary. Experience has also shown that it does not serve as a deterrent to crime. No legal system is flawless ; any miscarriage of justice could lead to the tragic loss of an innocent life.
Abolition of the death penalty throughout Europe, and beyond, is an objective common to all member states of the European Union and of the Council of Europe (47 Member countries). No execution has taken place in these countries in the last fifteen years.
The European Union and the Council of Europe urge all countries which still retain the death penalty to immediately apply a moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolition.
One of the corner stones of the EU’s position against the death penalty is miscarriage of justice, and the risk of executing an innocent person. Examples of miscarriage of justice are more frequent than we usually think. They only become apparent after complex and long re-trials. For example, in the US, since 1973, 141 people have been exonerated and freed from death row, among them 18 thanks to DNA evidence. As another example, in the UK, a Criminal Cases Review Commission was established in 1997 to review possible miscarriages of justice. The Commission has since referred a number of cases back to the Court of Appeal, of which 320 convictions were quashed. The public opinion in Taiwan is also conscious of the risk of miscarriage of justice : in an opinion poll conducted by Academia Sinica in 2006, 88% of the respondents thought that it was possible that courts in Taiwan could give wrong verdicts when handing down death sentences. The Chiang Kuo Ching and the Hsichih Trio cases have shown that Taiwan’s judicial system, like any others in the world, does make mistakes. Unfortunately as the result, an innocent life was lost.
Is there, really, an international trend towards a moratorium on executions and the abolition of the death penalty ?
This evolution is very clear. For example, in 2011 and 2012, only 21 countries in the world conducted executions, out of almost 200. 140 countries have abolished death penalty in law or in practice (established moratorium on executions).
In the United States, 17 States have now abolished or ruled unconstitutional the death penalty, the latest ones being New Jersey (2007), New York (2007), New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011) and Connecticut (2012). A number of other states have maintained a de facto moratorium on executions for a long time.
In Asia, a number of countries or territories have abolished the death penalty, either a long time ago (Cambodia, in 1989) or more recently (East Timor in 1999, The Philippines in 2006. Capital punishment has also been abolished a long time ago in Hong Kong and Macao. Other countries in this region have maintained a moratorium on executions, including South Korea and Mongolia.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of death penalty for the first time in 2007. Since then, similar UNGA resolutions have been adopted in 2008, 2010 and lastly on 20 December 2012. In 2007, 104 countries had voted in favour of this resolution, and 54 against. In 2012, 111 countries voted in favour and 41 against.
Is it true that the death penalty is not a deterrent against crime ?
There has been extensive research by specialists of criminal science, showing that the existence of the death penalty was not a deterrent against crime.
Numerous practical examples show that the abolition of the death penalty, or the implementation of a moratorium, does not lead to increases in the rates of violent crimes. Taiwan itself is a good example of this : over the 4 years when executions were not carried out (2006 to 2009), the crime rate decreased, and in particular the violent crime rate went down from 62 per 100.000 people in 2005 to 29.3 in 2009. This shows that a moratorium on executions does not result in more crimes.
There are plenty of other statistics which show that the death penalty does not act as an effective deterrent. Take the US for example. In 2010, the murder rate in the states where the death penalty has been abolished is 4.01 per 100,000, while in the states where the death penalty still exists the rate is 5.0 per 100,000. This trend has been consistent for the pas three decades. Even so, it is inappropriate to claim that abolishing the death penalty would result in lower murder/crime rates. However, one should at least concede that there is no statistical evidence that the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent to homicide or crimes.
What about the rights of the victims ?
The victims and their families suffer in a terrible way when faced with horrendous crimes. Nobody can really feel what they feel. But we must first recognize their immense suffering and sympathise with them with all our heart as a precondition for any discussion on the death penalty. The society also owes to victims and their families the best possible justice. For those who are against the capital punishment, the best possible justice cannot put someone to death, which goes against principles of humanity. There are many other elements, other than the death penalty, which contribute to the care for the victims’ families. These elements are, among others, at the centre of claims for abolition raised by the associations of murder victims’ families against the death penalty in the US. As another example, the EU is also working to improve the rights of victims and has adopted in October 2012 a directive on this subject, setting minimum standards for all EU Member States, including measures such as training for police and justice officials about how to better treat victims and their families, provision of information to them, victim support and protection etc ..
Why is the EU’s stance on the death penalty also valid in Taiwan ?
The EU’s position on human rights and the death penalty is universal, so it is of course also valid in Taiwan.
The situation of human rights in Taiwan is very good by world standards. The adoption of the provisions of the ICCPR and ICESCR in Taiwan’s domestic law is also a very good move, worth praising and supporting. By the same token, it is very positive that the report drafted on the implementation of these provisions was submitted to an international review, as this type of reviewing is always helpful in sharing experience and ultimately improving the situation.
However, the use of the death penalty in Taiwan, in spite of past efforts to reduce the scope of its application in the law, remains very high in comparison with the US and is actually increasing rather than diminishing. In 2011, the rate of executions in Taiwan was of 2.17 executions for 10 millions inhabitants and 2.6 in 2012, compared to 1.37 in both 2011 and 2012 in the US. The number of death sentences pronounced by courts in 2011 was of 6.5 per 10 million inhabitants in Taiwan, compared to 2.4 in the US.
Other point of comparison : there have been 26 executions in Taiwan since 2010, but only 17 in Japan during the same period, for a population more than 5 times more numerous.
It took Europe decades or even centuries to abolish the death penalty, wouldn’t Taiwan need a similar amount of time to eventually abolish it ?
We do not live in two separate and independent worlds, and in two different time periods. We all live in the same world, and the standards of universal human rights should apply in all places. This is the case, for example, for progress made on women’s rights – it would be unacceptable to consider that they could be legitimately withheld for some more decades in countries where the debate on the issue started later. The same can be said about the death penalty. The experience and debates that took place in Europe and beyond on the question of the death penalty can be used as tools for facilitating the eventual abolition of the death penalty, but not as excuses for inaction.
Isn’t it illegal not to carry out executions, if a moratorium is put in place ?
A moratorium on executions has been carried out in many parts of the world. There is no record of successful legal challenges to the moratoriums that were put in place in these countries. On the contrary, a moratorium on executions is a tool which is internationally recognised as valid and legal : the United Nations General Assembly adopted several resolutions (most recently in December 2012), by a large majority, in favour of implementing such a moratorium in all places where the death penalty is still part of the legal framework. A panel of international experts invited in 2013 by the Taiwan government to review Taiwan’s compliance with the two international covenants on Human Rights also concluded by recommending the adoption of a moratorium. They also pointed out the fact that the current absence of due process for amnesty actually made executions illegal and non-compliant with the two covenants.
Isn’t the EU interfering in Taiwan’s internal affairs ? Does the EU only criticize Taiwan and not others ?
No, the EU is not interfering in anybody’s internal affairs. It is not lecturing anyone, not putting pressure on anybody, and even less giving orders or instructions. The EU is itself far from perfect from the point of view of human rights. But the very principle at the basis of human rights is that these are universal values which should be enjoyed by all members of the human kind. This means that peoples across the globe should help each other, share and cooperate to try and improve the situation of human rights worldwide, beyond borders. The EU speaks out and is ready to conduct dialogue and cooperation because it cares.
The EU issues the same kind of statements, expressing its regrets about the use of death penalty in all countries which still keep it, including among others the United States, Japan or Mainland China. And the EU also conducts dialogues and programmes of cooperation on this issue with these countries.
Anyway, the public opinion is in favour of keeping the death penalty, so why shouldn’t we just follow it ?
Opinion polls only reflect the situation at one given moment on one specific question. It is better, if a society wants to move forward on any issue, to make sure that a public debate can take place and contribute to formulate a more informed view in the public opinion, rather than basing public policy on the simple reading of results of opinion polls. Popular opinions in most EU Member States were against abolition at the time it was decided. However, those opinions changed and became in majority favourable to abolition after a period without the death penalty.
Opinion polls also give nuanced results when questions are formulated in more detail : in many polls conducted in Taiwan, the majority of respondents were against the abolition of the death penalty, but more than 50% were in favour of abolition if the death penalty was replaced by life sentence without parole.
What can the EU do to contribute positively to the debate in Taiwan ?
The EU does not only issue statements. It also has an active policy of dialogue and cooperation in countries where the death penalty is still in use. This is also the case in Taiwan, through exchanges between judicial authorities, through dialogue on the different issues linked to the capital punishment, and through cooperation with Taiwan’s civil society. For example, judicial exchange programmes on human rights have been organised since 2012 between European and Taiwanese judicial personnel. These exercises were very successful and fruitful for both sides.