In dropping its opposition to the death penalty the UK risks relinquishing its claim to moral leadership

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 24 July 2018 in Comment

The whole point of long standing moral principles is that they do not shift when it is convenient, yet that is exactly what seems to have happened

Image credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The UK no longer opposes the death penalty. Yes, that’s right. In case you missed it, the UK has abandoned its longstanding opposition to execution as a punishment, without a minister holding a parliamentary debate or even staging a speech.

The news, which was leaked to the Telegraph a day before recess, emerged from a letter written by Home Secretary Sajid Javid, which confirmed the UK will not oppose use of the death penalty if two alleged Islamic state members are extradited to the US to face trial.

The two men, who have been stripped of their UK citizenship, are being held in Syria, with the UK Government apparently set to waive its opposition to the death penalty so that evidence can be released to assist the US in prosecuting them for multiple murders of hostages. Under normal circumstances the UK would expect guarantees that the the death penalty would not be used if it provided information assistance, but that is no longer the case.

And of course some will argue the death penalty is right in this instance. The suspects, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh have been accused of carrying out horrific crimes in the name of IS. Of gruesome, high-profile executions of Western hostages.

For some, it’s only right that, if found guilty, the punishment should fit the crime. That nothing would be too harsh, given the acts they have been accused of.

Others will argue that the measures are necessary. We may not like it, the argument goes, but we must be prepared to compromise some of our principles in order to stay safe.

This much is inevitable, because it’s what people always say when they want to justify stripping away a fundamental human rights protection. The circumstances change but the justification stays the same.

But the move represents a huge shift in position. Every year the Foreign Office releases a report, called ‘Human Rights and Democracy’, aimed at providing an update on its efforts to combat human rights abuses around the world. And as part of it, the document provides an update on the UK’s efforts to put an end to use of the death penalty.

The wording is very clear. As the most recent report puts it: “It is the long-standing policy of the UK to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle… The UK plays a leading role in pressing for reduced use of the death penalty overseas, through multilateral institutions including the UN, and through targeted bilateral interventions in priority countries.”

Well, not any more. The whole point of long standing moral principles is that they do not shift when it is convenient, yet that is exactly what seems to have happened.

In Greek myth, Odysseus ordered his crew to tie him to the mast of his ship, so he could hear the Sirens’ song without losing his mind and jumping into the sea to drown. He knew that when he heard the music he would lose his ability to think rationally, so he planned ahead, blocking up his crews’ ears and ordering them not to change course under any circumstances. If he did succeed in breaking free they were under strict orders to kill him.

Constitutions and human rights protections work in a similar way. Nations decide what is right when they are in a position to make rational plans, then stick by their principles, even when the passions brought on by specific events makes it tempting to do otherwise. It is a simple principle: You tie yourself to the mast before you hear the music, not after.

Yet the UK, understandably disgusted by the accusations levelled against the alleged IS members, has apparently changed course. It’s hard to overstate how much damage it could do to the UK’s moral leadership in the world. The fact there was no announcement or debate and that we only know about the move because Javid’s letter was leaked only compounds the problem.

Sometimes an exception can prove a rule. And in the same way that a burglar’s decision to wear a disguise is a tacit admission the law exists, the UK Government’s decision to press ahead without parliamentary debate points at a guilty conscience.

There is now speculation the decision will face a legal challenge, and while it is unclear what will happen next, from a human rights perspective none of it looks particularly promising.

In fact, confusingly, the UK is apparently set to withhold intelligence from the US if the pair are sent to Guantanamo Bay, but not if they face the death penalty. Why the idea of them being executed is more palatable to the UK Government than being detained in Guantanamo is anyone’s guess.

So who knows what will happen. But as far as the case for the death penalty goes, the UK Government’s own human rights report summarises the case very neatly. “We consider that its use undermines human dignity, that there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value, and that any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable.”

At present it’s not clear if the UK Government no longer believes this, or if it has just stopped caring.


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