More than 1,000 people are expected to attend the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty February 24-26 in Geneva. The Congress is organized by the French NGO Ensemple in partnership with the Swiss Confederation and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
During the 3rd World Congress Against the Death Penalty, held in Paris in 2007, Micheline Calmy-Rey, federal councillor and head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, invited the event’s organizer to hold this year’s Congress in Geneva. Abolition of capital punishment is a foreign policy priority in Switzerland, and Switzerland is co-funding half of the Congress’s budget.
Arnaud Gaillard, coordinator of the 4th World Congress, said the conference wants to welcome different countries and aims to build strategies to help them abolish the death penalty.
The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty was created in Rome in 2002. It’s composed of 104 bar associations, cities, local groups, unions and the like. It is actively supported by the European Union, and it aims to strengthen the international dimension of the fight against the death penalty.
Gaillard said the death penalty often is a European debate, but that he would like to see the topic discussed and debated among other countries as well.
In addition, Gaillard said he would like to see NGOs (non-governmental organizations associated with the United Nations) and IGOs (international government organizations) collaborate rather than work independently. “We want to gather all the strength together of these organizations to work together and to abolish the death penalty,” he said.
It is a challenge to get countries to ratify the second protocol, he said. The second protocol is an international treaty that links to international government, is signed by many countries and calls for a moratorium on the death penalty. Every two years it is voted on, and it will be voted on in December this year. ” We want more and more countries to vote for the moratorium,” he said. “One of the main strategies is to help the other countries to create the debate in their own countries, own societies to help them create debate for the abolition [of the death penalty].”
Talking about the death penalty debate in the United States, he said, “We know we are on this road [toward abolishment of the death penalty], but we want to explain to the United States that the death penalty isn’t something that belongs to justice,” Gaillard said. “It belongs to violence, something like barbarism, and we want to explain over the world that we can’t be a democracy and go further in the civilization process because the death penalty is something that belongs to the past.”
Many key figures have already confirmed their presence at the conference: José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, head of Spanish government; Navanethem Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights; Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico; Renate Wohlwend, rapporteur of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly on the Death Penalty, and Ibrahim Najjar, Lebanese minister of justice.
The conference will feature two plenary sessions, ten roundtables and nine workshops. A cultural program aimed at the general public will also be organized in parallel at the International Conference Centre in Geneva and within the city,, which is the world capital of human rights and home to a number of international organizations.
The World Congress Against the Death Penalty is a triennial opportunity to bring together abolitionist groups and strengthen the international dimension of the fight against the death penalty. More specifically, the Fourth Congress will pursue the following goals:
- To strengthen ties between civil society, international and intergovernmental institutions and organizations as well as national and local entities in support of the abolitionist movement.
- To involve players of retentionist states, which are territories that retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes, from so-called Southern regions in the defining and leading of abolitionist strategies.
- To increase the political, diplomatic, religious, social and cultural impact on retentionist states.
- To enlarge the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and to encourage the building of national and regional coalitions.
Roundtables will cover many topics, including:
- Racial, ethnic and social bias in the death penalty implementation: Are political and social commitments to equality effective tools for abolition?
- Protecting vulnerable groups from the death penalty, such as juveniles and those with mental health issues.
- Violence, victims and the death penalty: how to respond to violence and compensate victims without the death penalty.
- Approaching law enforcement issues without the death penalty.
- Tools and strategies for death penalty abolition in the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, from moratorium to abolition in law.
- Access to a competent counsel in capital cases: how lawyers can make the difference between life and death.
- The Caribbean: the continued danger of escalating executions.
In addition, the conference will feature “Words of Victims,” an evening during which former Death Row inmates and families of victims of crime and execution witnesses tell their stories. This series of stories will be accompanied by interludes animated by the Franco-British singer Emily Loizeau. Also, “The Omega Suites,” a photo exhibit of Lucinda Devlin referring to the process of killing in the United States, will be featured. Film and documentaries screenings on the death penalty issue from several countries will be showcased as well to offer a panel of death penalty cases at different periods, from different cultural, religious and political backgrounds.
According to the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, in 2008, ninety percent of recorded executions took place in five countries:
- Saudi Arabia – at least 102 people, including 39 foreigners.
- China – 1,700 executions according to the Amnesty International record and 6,000 according to the Dhui Hua Foundation.
- The United States – 37 executions, including 18 in Texas.
- Iran – 346 people executed, including eight who were under 18 when they allegedly committed their crimes.
- Pakistan – at least 36 executions.
In 58 countries, the law still provides for capital punishment. Although democracies such as the United States and Japan still execute people, the majority of the death sentences are carried out by authoritarian governments. Geographically speaking, executions mostly take place in Asian and Arabic countries and also in some parts of the Caribbean.