Since 2001, the World Congress against the death penalty, organised by ECPM in partnership with the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, has become an abolitionist event not to be missed.

After Strasbourg in 2001, Montreal in 2004, Paris in 2007, and Geneva in 2010 (photo), the 5th World Congress against the death penalty will take place in Madrid at the invitation of the Spanish Government and with sponsorship from the Norwegian, Swiss and French Governments. It is also financially supported by the European Union, the International Organization of the Francophonie, the Governments of Germany, Sweden, Australia, and Luxembourg, the Paris Bar-Solidarity Fund and the Ile-de-France region.

In the lead up to the next edition, the history of previous World Congresses shows how much ground they have covered so far.

Click here to read about the 2001, 2004 and 2007 Congresses.

2010, Geneva: time for international recognition

The 4th World Congress came with numerous indications that the abolitionist movement and its global event had become legitimate in the eyes of the international community.

The Congress took place in February 2010 in Geneva at the invitation of the Swiss government, who displayed strong support for its organisers.

“By choosing Geneva – the international capital of human rights – as the Congress venue, we not only recognise the momentousness of the discussions that are to be held here, but we also honour what we call the ‘Geneva spirit’,” Swiss minister for foreign affairs Micheline Calmy-Rey wrote in the booklet circulated to all participants.

The city is host to the United Nations’ main human rights bodies and since 2007, the UN General Assembly had adopted repeated resolutions for a universal moratorium on executions with a view to abolish the death penalty.

“At the present time, more than two thirds of UN member countries have abolished the death penalty in law. Spain and the Spaniards are fully committed to this fight against the death penalty”, Spanish head of government José-Luis Zapatero, who also held the European Union’s presidency, told the opening ceremony.

He was surrounded by ministers from Switzerland and overseas, members of ECPM and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and leaders of international organizations such as Francophonie general secretary Abdou Diouf.

Quick action followed Zapatero’s speech: Spain created an International Commission Against the Death Penalty composed of high-level international personalities to promote the abolitionist message in diplomatic circles. At the end of the Geneva Congress, Madrid extended an official invitation to all participants for the 2013 edition.

Victims’ emotion

Debates developed at the Geneva International Conference Centre including key discussions on co-operation between international organizations, states and activists.

The programme also featured the continued exploration of themes discussed at previous Congresses on the best strategies to further the abolitionist cause in the main retentionist regions and on key arguments such as discrimination in the administration of capital punishment.

The 4th Congress saw the introduction of practical workshops led by technical experts on issues such as new media campaigning, advocacy through cartoons, the use of educational material in school and universities, etc.

New voices joined the abolitionist movement, especially those of law enforcement professionals convinced that the death penalty did not help them combat crime.

The spotlight, however, was firmly put on victims –of crimes and of capital punishment – with help from artists who helped mediate their emotion. As participants to the Congress filed into the conference centre every day, they walked past large portraits of relatives of death row prisoners by photographer Caroline Planque.

During a powerful evening led by the US-based organisation Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights at Geneva’s Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, bereaved relatives and friends came forward to say that the murders of their loved ones could never be erased by taking another human life – on the contrary, they opposed the cycle of violence perpetuated by the death penalty.

The audience held their breath when US prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal spoke on the phone live from death row. His sentenced was commuted a few years later, following unprecedented international mobilisation.

The voice of singer Emily Loizeau rose between testimonies, strained by the strength of the contributions she was hearing. “I am constantly shocked that such barbarity can still exist in civilized countries”, she said.

Thomas Hubert