Few, if any, observers are suggesting that there is any chance of reviving Europe’s grim use of the guillotine, garrote, firing squad, or noose for those condemned by the courts. Most EU member states stopped executions decades ago; Portugal last executed a condemned prisoner in 1849, Sweden in 1910. Nearly forty European states have signed or ratified Protocol 6, the provision in the European Convention on Human Rights that outlaws the death penalty. Signing and ratification of the protocol is now a prerequisite for membership in the EU and the Council of Europe, which now comprises forty one nations, including Russia which signed, and Turkey which declined.
Nearly one-hundred countries, mainly in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, continue to impose death sentences or have kept the death penalty on the books. European heads of state and government, parliamentarians, and human rights groups regularly press the case for abolition in these nations, often in specific cases and particularly in the United States. According to Amnesty International, the number of executions in the United States last year reached ninety-eight, compared to 1,077 executions in China, and 165 in Iran, out of a total of 1,813 executions in thirty-one countries. In the view of Robert Badinter, who in 1981 as Socialist justice minister successfully led the legislative battle for ending capital punishment in France, the United States is “the terrible counter-example.”
Badinter currently plans mounting what he terms a worldwide “cyberpetition” against the death penaity in the United States that will be presented to the incoming president next January. The former justice minister, who currently serves as a senator, said recently that he forsees a “long and difficult” battle to convince the majority of Americans who favor the death penalty to change their minds. Signatures will be solicited electronicaily from all those who support ending what he terms “killing the innocent, preferably miserable, and poor.”
As part of a French-led lobbying effort, Raymond Forni, president of the National Assembly, warned in an interview with EUROPE that he plans cailing for a revocation of the United States’ observer status in the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, a role Washington considers useful and will defend.
Forni and other leading EU parliamentarians, heads of state and government, their ambassadors, non-governmental human rights and religious groups regularly call–and demonstrate–for a reversal of US policy that, since a Supreme Court ruling in 1976, allowed states to resume capital punishment. Often they appeal directly to President Bill Clinton and other US leaders and regularly visit condemned prisoners. At the end of August, Forni led a French parliamentary delegation to visit convicted killer and former journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, awaiting execution in prison at Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Later, Forni, a Socialist and longtime abolitionist, told reporters that he was “indignant” over the absence of any discussion of the death penalty in the presidential campaign.
He and many other Europeans, particularly leftists, say they are pained and baffled by American attitudes and particularly those of President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore, who for decades have supported the death penalty.
Yet few of the European abolitionists ever openly take issue with the fact that public support for capital punishment remains high in some major European countries, notably the United Kingdom. In some eighteen Eastern European countries seeking EU membership, notably in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, support for the death penalty is close to, or exceeds, 64 percent, which was the level of support in France when the 1981 law banning exe cutions was approved by the National Assembly 363 to 117 and in the Senate 160 to 126.
These opinion results are contained in a poll conducted late last year by Gallup International, a British-based firm, founded by the American George Gallup, independently of the US firm that aiso bears his name. EU offlciais in Brussels told EUROPE that they were not aware of any other surveys conducted by their official polling organizations.
In his poll, Gallup asked participants: Are you in favor of the use of the death penalty? Throughout Western Europe, including all EU members, the average of those who said they were in favor, averaged 34 percent. Roughly 60 percent replied they were opposed, while 6 percent said they were undecided. In the United Kingdom, 68 percent of those surveyed said they were in favor; 42 percent in France; 40 percent in Belgium; 31 percent in Germany; 28 percent in Italy; and 19 percent in Spain.
Nearly half of those surveyed in Western Europe also said they believed crime was rising in their areas, while in Eastern Europe 55 percent expressed the same fears, which, along with terrorism, are often cited for the continuing support of the death penalty.
However, as assassinations of prominent political figures and journaiists increase in Spain’s Basque region, Spanish support for the death penalty also surges. “Every time the ETA (the terrorist group that advocates Basque independence) strikes, or there are violent crimes committed against women and children, there are calls for reviving the death penalty,” comments Jordi Ferrerons, a Paris-based correspondent for TV3, Catalonia’s leading television network. “Then it dies down,” he says, noting Spain abolished capital punishment in 1995 and that the last execution took place twenty years earlier.
Earlier this spring in Warsaw, the Polish parliament voted to ratify Protocol 6 of the European Convention, which government officials said was mainly symbolic, reflecting Poland’s commitment to EU values. Yet, like France in 1981, opinion surveys showed that a majority of Poles continued to support the death penalty, although it was abolished in favor of life imprisonment two years ago.
At about the same time, a survey released in Prague showed that 66 percent of Czech Republic citizens favored reviving the death penalty, which was abolished ten years ago. The percentage was 69 percent in favor among women and 80 percent among residents of the capital. Nevertheless, the figures reflect a softening in revival attitudes, according to the Czech News Agency, which reported that in 1992 and 1994, the level of support for the death penalty among Czechs averaged 75 percent.