British Foreign Office Minister calls on US to scrap death penalty

A British Foreign Office Minister urged the United States today to abolish the death penalty as he vowed Britain would show "moral and intellectual leadership" on the issue across the globe.

Jeremy Browne said politicians in Washington should "reflect" on the company they were in internationally in continuing to use capital punishment.

He spoke out as the British Foreign Office put America among its top five priority areas for diplomatic action in its latest anti-death penalty strategy.

Although the number of executions in the 35 US states which retain the punishment has dropped in recent years - to 52 in 2009 - it is still ranked alongside China, Iran, Belarus and the Caribbean.

The strategy said abolition by America would have a "significant knock-on effect" overseas, but recognised it was unlikely to happen within the next decade.

Speaking at the launch of the strategy, Mr Browne said: "We do not regard those values as intrinsically British values or Western values, we think they are human values and we think it is important that our government expresses those values around the world.

"Of course we can't go around instructing countries to abolish the death penalty. What we can do is show moral and intellectual leadership."

Asked if he was directing a message at the US, he said: "If I was sitting in Washington I would look at the list of the countries in the world that didn't use the death penalty and I would be struck by, by and large, how benign and progressive those countries were - not just in this regard but in terms of many other social issues.

"And then I would look at the other list of the countries that did use the death penalty and then I would reflect for a while as to how desirable it was that the United States should be on the second list rather than the first."

He dismissed arguments put to him by overseas counterparts that the death penalty was publicly popular - insisting it was for politicians to show "leadership" on the issue.

"Politics is about leadership it is not just about followership," he said.

"You have to try and achieve progressive change through arguments. How many people in Britain today really campaign for the re-introduction of the death penalty? Very few.

"When social progress is made, it tends to be the case that after a period of consolidating that social progress, people look back at a darker, harsher past and think it is not in their interests to return to that."

The death penalty for murder was suspended in Britain in 1965 and permanently abolished in 1969.

Mr Browne tried to play down the impact of possible funding cuts on the work to oppose the death penalty, and intervene in the cases of Britons facing execution overseas.

The strategy document made clear that money had been allocated in the FCO's human rights programme until March next year but that future spending "has not been confirmed and will be dependent on the comprehensive spending review".

"Obviously there are some funding implications but I think it is mainly about political will...and often it does not cost anything to say what you think," the Minister said.

The UK government is opposed to the death penalty "in all circumstances as a matter of principle because it undermines human dignity, there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value and any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable".

Mr Browne said even if evidence was produced that capital punishment did deter criminals, he would still be opposed to the punishment on principle.

According to Amnesty International, 58 countries retain the death penalty but only 18 were known to have used it in 2009 - with at least 714 people being killed.

But the human rights campaign organisation said "thousands" more executions were likely to have been carried out by China, which does not release its statistics.

The strategy attacks the "very opaque" use of the death penalty in China but says work there should focus on reducing the number of executions and ensuring those that do happen meet minimum standards set out in European Union human rights guidelines rather than abolition.

In the US, by contrast, British efforts should be centred on "abolition on a state by state basis" and reducing the number of Britons and other foreign nationals executed there.

"If the USA abolished the death penalty, it would be likely to have a significant knock-on effect in other retentionist countries and would send a positive message to the rest of the world", the strategy said - pointing to promising debates in some states over possible abolition.

The strategy commits the UK to use "all appropriate influence" to prevent the execution of Britons overseas and to raise other cases with foreign governments where necessary.

Dozens of high-profile pleas - including a direct phone call by then prime minister Gordon Brown to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao - failed late last year to prevent the execution of convicted drug smuggler Akmal Shaikh after Beijing rejected claims he was mentally ill.

Shaikh's family said it showed Britain's "powerlessness in the world".

Asked about that case, Mr Browne said: "We do not go around able to instruct every single country in the world to do exactly what the British Government wants it to do."

But the British government was right to do everything possible to intervene where it could, he said.

"You have the case of the woman at risk of being stoned to death in Iran. We have a choice: we could throw our hands in the air and say: 'There is nothing to be done, it is none of our business, we can't hope to influence them, we will just walk on the other side of the road'.

"Or we can say: 'Look, we do care, we do have a moral position on the death penalty and we are going to make that case as strongly and as forcefully as we can whether it is in the United Nations or with the individual countries concerned'. That is what we will do."

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