Political leadership is needed to take the driver’s seat in the abolition of the death penalty here and in the region, a forum organised by the EU and Britain heard on Monday but Governance Minister Raphael Trotman was non-committal on the topic.
Ending the death penalty in the Caribbean lies in the hands of the governments, according to Fernando Ponz Canto, Deputy Head of the Division for the Caribbean European Exter-nal Action Service who says that the European Union (EU) will not pressure countries to move in this direction.
Canto made those comments during a press conference held moments before the start of the opening ceremony of the Carib-bean Regional Conference on the Abolition of the Death Penalty. The conference which ended yesterday was held at the Arthur Chung Convention Centre.
“We are here not to tell you what to do at all. We are here to support you in your decision but also to exchange ideas”, he told reporters.
He said that the Delega-tion of the European Union (EU) and the International Commission against the Death Penalty feel very strongly that death penalty is not the right way. “That is why within the European Union we have abolished it but we are not the ones who are going to abolish it in the Caribbean. It is you and your people and your citizens and your governments who can decide”, Canto stressed.
Asked if the EU will impose any sanctions or restrict aid to any Carib-bean country that does not abolish the death penalty, Canto said that it is not a question of sanctions but rather exchanging experiences before stressing that abolition is something that needs to be decided on at the level of the Caribbean.
Pressed on the possible implications in the event that Caribbean countries are not inclined to move in this direction, Lord Navnit Dholakia of the UK All Party Parliamentarian Committee on Abolition of the Death Penalty said that it is “fundamentally wrong” to interfere in the process that a country adopts.
“But there is nothing wrong in terms of opening bilateral discussions. About good practices, about the way other countries have actually achieved that particular objective…I think it would be fundamentally wrong to turn around and say they must be sanctioned. I don’t accept that”, he said.
He stated that this is not the way to establish values and more importantly every visit to a country brings with it informed opinions from people. He said that the job of the EU is to assist in the advancement of the argument.
Derek Lambe, the head of the EU’s political, press and information section said that the EU works in a spirit of partnership in the Caribbean and as such the whole objective of the conference is to bring people in the region together to fuel dialogue.
Asked what support the EU will give to Guyana’s justice system in the event that there is an abolition of the death penalty, Lord Dholakia spoke of consultations. He said that bilateral discussions coupled with visits are important aspects of the learning process. He said that “it is a process of moving forward on the basis of good practices that are being adopted and how do you go forward from there”.
With regards to offering support to developing countries which decide to abolish the death penalty given the additional financial burden of life sentences, Lambe said the EU provides significant funding to countries in the Caribbean through the European Development Fund.
He said that this fund has three lines: climate change, regional integration and crime and security. “So we are working with countries in the region to define exactly how these funds will be dispersed and it is an ongoing conversation and it is possible that such an issue can be addressed under the European Development Fund”, Lambe, said.
Rajiv Narayan, senior policy advisor, Inter-national Commission against the Death Penalty (ICDP) and Dr. Asunta Vivo Cavaller, Secretary General, ICDP spoke of the need for political leadership to take the front seat in the abolition of the death penalty.
Meanwhile, in delivering his address during the opening ceremony Minis-ter of Governance Raphael Trotman said that there is no doubt that it will be a “thought provoking” conference on the future of the death penalty in the Caribbean. He said too that the discussion on capital punishment makes one uneasy but also fuels lively and contentious debates about the right to life against the right to security and justice.
He said that this topic remains a controversial area of international human rights law and practice across all landscapes.
Trotman in delivering his charge said that thirteen Caribbean countries have retained the death penalty in law. He noted that that much action has been taken to mitigate the severity of the death penalty by allowing for consideration of prevailing circumstances for each case and the limiting of cases in which it can be applied.
Trotman used the forum to question whether today there is a willingness to take this step to abolish the death penalty, if there is the political will and the support of the people to go further. He said that these are questions that need to be answered in the medium and the long term.
According to Trotman states face the challenge of making the decisions relating to the human rights and justice conflict. He said that in Guyana while it remains enshrined in law, in practice, “there is an unwritten and unspoken moratorium in effect”. He noted that in almost two decades, the country has not applied punishment by way of death.
He said that the amendments to the death penalty law in 2010 brings the country “to a new direction and we must never be afraid to move forward. The legislature is but an aspect of a noble mechanism”.
Trotman told the sizeable gathering that clarity, consistency and consensus must be found. He said that as we seek to embrace a world that is progressing by way of recognition of rights “there is a dire challenge to respond to ever-growing impacts of terrorism, extrajudicial and retaliatory killings”. He used France and Mali as examples of what he was trying to illustrate.
“The political and human rights discussions become centred on whether arresting terrorists and incarcerating them for life is justice for the countless persons who have been beheaded and the thousands whose life have been grotesquely scarred. Or is it even an option given the gravity and human cost inflicted”, he said.
He also took a swipe at Western bombing campaigns of terrorist targets.
“These recent responses to the horrendous events of Friday (the) 13th in Paris, France, beg the question: is the precision or saturation bombing of `terrorist’ enclaves a form of indiscriminate application of the death penalty? Is this justice?”
Canto in his comments said that the death penalty, “is cruel, inhuman, irreversible”. He said too that the EU sees abolition as one of the main objectives of its foreign policy. He called for continuous dialogue with partners to explain why the EU thinks that capital punishment is wrong.
He used the opportunity to invite Guyana to abolish the death penalty. “You have already achieved some very important progress”, he stressed.
Canto expressed certainty that Guyana can, once government, the people and civil society focus their minds. “Should you decide to go that way the European Union will support you wholeheartedly”, he stressed.
Lord Dholakia questioned how one changes public attitude towards discussion on the death penalty and he stressed the need for public education in this regard particularly through the media. He noted that change will never come if one waits for public opinion. He stressed that the approach to the issue requires leadership adding that it is now up to Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean Region to decide on the way forward.
Ambassador of the European Union to Guyana, Jernej Videtic said that in the Caribbean Region a large number of counties still retain the death penalty. He said that the most recent “positive development” came when Suriname abolished the death penalty.
He noted that the EU has made human rights central to its foreign policy. “The abolition of the death penalty is one of our main human rights priorities”, he stressed.
According to Dr. Cavaller, as of July 2015 approximately 160 of the 193 member states of the UN have abolished the death penalty and introduced moratoriums either in law or in practice.
During the hour-long opening ceremony, the audience was shown a short video which detailed statistics. Based on the numbers shown China is at the top of the list for having the most executions.
Members of civil society, the diplomatic community, government and the legal profession were in attendance.