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It is my pleasure to be able to talk to you today about one of the most fundamental elements of the EU's human rights policy. The current prevalence of this topic is reflected in the several motions for resolutions which various groups in the European Parliament have put forward.
On the basis of the "Guidelines to EU policy towards third countries on the death penalty" adopted by the Council of Ministers in 1998, the EU is committed to the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances throughout the world. The establishment of moratoria has also featured strongly in the fight against the death penalty over the years, albeit as a step on the way to complete abolition rather than an end in itself.
The EU will continue to pursue its policy for the protection of human rights during Germany's Council Presidency and make resolute calls for both the introduction of moratoria and the complete abolition of the death penalty.
This means, on the one hand, driving forward the debate on fundamental issues, both in bilateral meetings and in multilateral fora – the United Nations in particular. It also means continuing to actively approach countries which find themselves at a turning point, that is to say where there could be either a positive or negative development in terms of the death penalty, and address them accordingly. And finally it means, in the most concrete terms, carrying out demarches in a great number of urgent individual cases.
I know that the European Parliament too has always been committed to this policy, and I am pleased to say that we have already achieved a great deal together: If approximately two thirds of the countries of the world have abolished the death penalty today by law or in practice, this is thanks to the ceaseless efforts of all those who actively oppose it. This includes the engagement of the Council of Europe. As many as 33 countries have meanwhile ratified the 13th Protocol to the EHRC which now prohibits the death penalty in countries belonging to the Council of Europe in times of war also.
But there are still far too many countries (66 in total!) which continue to apply the death penalty. We have unfortunately also seen some downward trends in the observance of moratoria.
It is thus all the more important that we sustain our efforts and continue to make a distinct call – in international fora in particular – for the abolition of the death penalty. In this respect, the EU tabled an annual resolution in the Commission on Human Rights from 1999 until its dissolution in 2005. The EU was able to secure a stable majority in favour of this resolution over the years.
Following the dissolution of this committee, we must find new ways to advance the debate on the abolition of the death penalty. But there are no easy answers here. We must consider our actions very carefully, as our main priority is to avoid a step backwards on what we have achieved. There has so far been a clear consensus on this approach within the EU.
In view of the considerable prevailing risk of failure, the EU has as yet declined to table a resolution in the General Assembly of the United Nations. Instead, an unprecedented non-binding declaration against the death penalty was submitted to the General Assembly on the initiative of the EU on 19 December 2006. It was supported by 85 countries from all regional groups. This was an encouraging result, but at the same time confirmed that the success of an EU resolution in the UN General Assembly cannot yet be considered guaranteed.
Where do we go from here?
All EU partners are agreed that we want to actively bring forward our efforts to fight the death penalty, at UN level too. But it is also clear that conditions remain difficult, and that the EU can only achieve success with a measured, step-by-step approach. Our priority should remain to do all we can to rule out the failure of a new EU initiative. A failure on part of the EU would mean a success for those who support the death penalty and a setback in the fight against this inhumane form of punishment. We cannot and must not let this happen!
Some major non-governmental players (including Amnesty International) are thus warning against hasty action and have suggested that it could be counter-productive for the EU to insist on a renewed debate on this topic in the UN General Assembly.
At the General Affairs Council on 22 January, it was therefore agreed that we should first develop a carefully considered approach which will gradually lend our topic greater weight in the United Nations. Ambassadors in New York and Geneva were accordingly asked to assess all possibilities to advance this discussion at UN level. We should also take account of the recommendations of relevant NGOs regarding further measures to combat the death penalty at UN level. On the basis of these findings, the German Council Presidency will draw up proposals for further action which it will present to its EU partners in February.