PACE parliamentarians commend Kazakhstan’s abolition of death penalty

PACE parliamentarians commend Kazakhstan’s abolition of death penalty

On October 10th, both the European Union and the Council of Europe (CoE) will mark the 19th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty, with this year’s addition dedicated to women who have been executed, who are at risk of being executed or sentenced to death, and to those whose death sentences have been commuted or otherwise annulled.

The annual event marks an important moment for the human rights advocacy carried out by both of these European institutions, with CoE secretary-general Marija Pejčinović Burić signing joint declarations declaring “opposition to the use of capital punishment in all circumstances” and calling for “the universal abolition of the death penalty” with EU High Representatives Federica Mogherini in 2019 and Josep Borrell Fontelles in 2020.

This year, on the margins of the Autumn Session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) held in Strasbourg, France last week, a group of 23 parliamentarians led by PACE vice-president Laima Andrikienė signed a declaration welcoming the Republic of Kazakhstan’s decision to abolish the death penalty, joining Chad as one of two countries to do so last year.

As a partner of both the European Union and the CoE under the auspices of the Central Asia Rule of Law Programme, Kazakhstan’s ongoing slate of human rights and rule of law reforms is proceeding in close consultation with the two European bodies. The EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights, Ireland’s Eamon Gilmore, is in fact meeting with officials in Kazakhstan this week about the progress of those very initiatives.

Nur-Sultan joins the global abolitionist movement

In late 2020, the government of Kazakhstani president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed and ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In doing so, Kazakhstan became the 89th UN member state to ratify the Protocol, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1989 and which categorically states in its first article that “no one within the jurisdiction of a State Party to the present Protocol shall be executed.”

As PACE vice-president Andrikienė and her fellow signatories state in their declaration, Kazakhstan’s move to ratify the Second Optional Protocol – and President Tokayev’s further commitments in his UN General Assembly speech last month to “fulfil the fundamental right to life and human dignity” – are “in keeping with the values and principles of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe” and show “the determination of Kazakhstan to combat this cruel and inhuman penalty.”

The move by Kazakhstan’s government to permanently reject the death penalty as a tool of justice brings it an important step closer to the human rights standards in place across the 47 countries of the Council of Europe, none of whom carry out executions. In all of Europe, only Belarus – which is not a CoE member state – still uses the death penalty. The chairman of Belarus’ constitutional court confirmed last week that abolition would not be on the ballot when the eastern European country holds a constitutional referendum next year.

While the EU and the CoE have enjoyed marked success in doing away with the death penalty over the past four decades (at least outside of Belarus), bringing an end to the practice in other parts of the world remains a battle only half-won.

Building momentum to end executions worldwide

Given Kazakhstan’s position between the world’s two most prolific state executioners (China and the Islamic Republic of Iran), the decision by Central Asia’s most prominent economic and diplomatic player sends an important message to the rest of the region, even if Kazakhstan’s justice system had not itself carried out a death sentence since a moratorium was imposed in 2003.

Kazakhstan’s adoption of the Second Optional Protocol is also significant on account of the country’s leadership position within the Islamic world. After China, the four governments who lead the world in executions are Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East: Iran, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, in that order.

While pressure from Western governments and human rights organisations has failed to change the thinking of officials in these states, the trend towards abolition in Central Asia could gradually help shift the tone of the discourse surrounding the death penalty further afield. In ratifying the Second Optional Protocol, Kazakhstan joins Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, with only Tajikistan failing to join the accord out of the six Muslim-majority former Soviet republics.

Of course, the black mark on global human rights represented by the death penalty is hardly limited to Muslim-majority countries. Of the CoE’s six observer states, Japan, Israel, and the United States still have the death penalty on the books. Japan and the United States are the only two industrial democracies who still carry out executions, and neither has signed or ratified the Second Optional Protocol.

As they congratulate outside partner countries like Kazakhstan for embracing their human rights norms, the members of PACE must also be wondering how they can convince the CoE’s own observer countries to do the same.

Image credit: Adrian Grycuk/Wikimedia Commons (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 PL)

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