Thursday, June 24, 2010

"Toward a Responsible Debate"

From the Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights press conference yesterday in Tokyo, the introductory remarks by Mr. Stefan Huber, Chargé d’Affaires a.i., Delegation of the EU to Japan:

Ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to be invited to speak at this press conference, and I am glad to have this opportunity to talk about human rights in general and the issue of the death penalty in particular.

For the EU, human rights matter. They are at the core of our identity and they are at the heart of what we do around the world. Our own history is about entrenching human rights, democracy and the rule of law across 27 Member States. This is a success story and one on which we base ourselves to promote human rights worldwide. So it is logical that we have developed a strong set of mechanisms to promote these values. To give just one example, over the last 18 months we have provided €235 million in funding for 900 NGO projects in 100 countries.

And I would like to add that in the wide realms of human rights the EU and Japan share many of the same values. Indeed, on many human rights topic, the EU and Japan stand side-by-side, like-minded partners.

But there is one noticeable exception, where the EU and Japan's position diverges and that is the reason why we are all here today. At the heart of the EU's human rights policy there is a strong belief that that abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights.

This is why not only have we abolished the death penalty in the European Union, but also why we espouse its abolition for others too. The EU therefore has a strongly held policy agreed by all Member States of working towards universal abolition of the death penalty and, where the death penalty still exists, to call for its use to be progressively restricted and to insist that it be carried out according to minimum standards.

Article 2 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights provides that no one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed. And following the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 the Fundamental Rights' Charter, which is referred to in the treaty, has the same legal value as the European Union Treaties. All EU member states are fully committed to these provisions and implement them in practice. All countries wishing to join the EU have to abolish the death penalty, too.

As you know Japan continues to apply the death penalty. The number of executions surged in the 2006-2008 period, prompting the EU to publish statements on the issue in 2008. The circumstances surrounding executions in Japan also worry us: secrecy, extended time in death row, and the quasi absence of pardon of sentence commutation.

But what frustrates us most in Japan is the absence of widespread, sincere debate on the issue. With the introduction of the lay judge system, capital punishment has been – for a short while – a bit more intensely discussed in the media, but other than that, there has been little effort to trigger a real reflection on the continued use of the death penalty in a democracy as mature and a society as safe as Japan.

I believe that Japan does not yet have a mature, responsible, open debate about the death penalty. Politicians all too rarely dare to lead the way on this subject. Thus, many members of the public do not have access to a fully informed understanding of the complicated issues involved. This is probably one of the reasons why Japanese public opinion is still in favour of the death penalty and why studies show a high public support rate.

In this context, further to our dialogue and confidential diplomacy towards the Japanese authorities, one of the things the EU is trying to contribute to in Japan, is to encourage more debate, to divulge more information, and encourage more reflection on the implications of the death penalty. This includes working more closely with NGOs and human rights defenders and helping them in their outreach efforts and advocacy work. For that purpose we provide financial support to a large number of projects for the promotion of democracy and human rights in non-EU countries through a dedicated programme, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights.

This year, one of the organisations to receive funding from the EU is the U.S.-based NGO, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. In Japan, aside from the high levels of public support, another reason often cited by retentionists for their support of the death penalty is the “need to think of the victims’ families”.

There is a widespread assumption, and not just in Japan, that victims’ families favour the death penalty. As today’s main speakers have previously stated, executions are presumed to meet survivors’ need for justice and closure and to oppose the death penalty is often seen as somehow being ‘anti-victim’. But this is not necessarily the case.

This visit will allow many Japanese to hear the voices of victims’ families in a context that is rarely heard in the public sphere in Japan, and I sincerely hope that it helps bolster the movement towards a mature, responsible debate in this country.

Thank you for your attention.

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