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 (photo), Paris in 2007, and Geneva in 2010, 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.

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

2001, Strasbourg: the origin

Lawmakers were the main focus of the first World Congress Against the Death Penalty. Participants met at the European Parliament in June 2001 and heard the speakers of several parliamentary assemblies declare their commitment to abolition.

Wolfgang Thierse, the speaker of Germany’s Bundestag, said it in the clearest terms: “The death penalty is a barbaric act unworthy of any society, both in principle and through its application. It violates the most fundamental of human rights – the right to life.”

Some of the themes that have traversed the abolitionist movement to this day were already on the agenda. ECPM called for a UN General Assembly resolution establishing a universal moratorium on executions. The resolution was finally adopted in 2007 and renewed twice since.

Amnesty International’s representative to the Strasbourg Congress highlighted the cruel, inhuman and degrading nature of capital punishment. “How can one still deny that death sentences and executions constitute unbearable torture? How can the death penalty be accepted without justifying torture?” he said. This argument will again be discussed at a workshop in Madrid.

The Strasbourg Congress, which remained very much a European affair, ended with a promise to make the movement more international. In article 9 of their final declaration, the participants committed to “create a world-wide co-ordination of abolitionist associations and campaigners, whose first goal will be to launch a world-wide day for the universal abolition of the death penalty”.

The following year, that promise materialized with the creation of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty – a partner in the organization of subsequent Congresses.

2004, Montreal: conquering America

The 2nd World Congress Against the Death Penalty took place on the eve of the 2nd World Day Against the Death Penalty, established in 2003 as a major annual abolitionist event each 10 October.

The Canadian venue represented an abolitionist foray into the Americas, where the United States and the Caribbean have been major battlegrounds – then and now.

This allowed many American abolitionists to join their counterparts from overseas and begin in-depth discussions on international strategies for abolition. Coordination and joined-up thinking at the global level had started in earnest.

Penal Reform International’s involvement in the preparations for the Montreal Congress brought valuable expertise on international law and judicial systems.

Discrimination in the administration of the death penalty began to attract attention, from racism to the inequal treatment of nationalities in capital cases and the use of the death

penalty to target political opponents. Robert Meeropol, the head of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, told the Congress how his parents Ethel and Julius Rosenberg had been executed in the US because of their communist political affiliation.

As they gathered a few hundred miles from the sites of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, the participants wrote in their final declaration: “The Congress is concerned that the fight against the terrorism, necessary though it may be, is too often accompanied by an increasing reliance on the death penalty at a time when international penal jurisdictions are prosecuting the most serious crimes without reverting to capital punishment.”

Alternative sanctions to be considered after the abolition of the death penalty also became an international issue at the second Congress. They will be discussed again in Madrid, as growing number of US states and governments elsewhere tend to replace the death penalty with life without parole.

2007, Paris: a truly international era begins

The 3rd World Congress Against the Death Penalty opened in a strongly evocative place – the Paris Cité internationale universitaire, where each country was invited to build a pavilion to house its visiting students.

The World Coalition was gathering steam as ECPM obtained European funding for its development. The co-ordination of abolitionist efforts also made progress at the regional and national level: after the ADPAN network in Asia, the participants to the Paris Congress laid the foundations for coalitions in the Middle East-North Africa region, the African Great Lakes and Tunisia.

In a strong showing reminiscent of the parliamentary focus of the first Congress, political leaders turned up in droves in Paris: five ministers from abolitionist countries were present. International organizations, too, sent numerous delegates, starting with the European Union. Leaders and diplomats from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and others opened a dialogue with activists.

Beyond officialdom, the Paris Congress also marked the growing concern for the human side of the fight against the death penalty. Former death row prisoners and murder victims’ families shared their testimonies with the public and laid bare the horror of capital punishment. The final march brought together more than 3,000 people and attracted media coverage thanks to the heavy news agenda: several candidates running in the 2007 French election took part and the upcoming Beijing Olympics drew attention to China.

The Congress made headlines when the participants called on the Chinese president to observe a truce on death sentences and executions during the Games, denouncing “secrecy, torture, expeditious trials and the violation of defence rights, not to mention the international trafficking of organs taken from the executed”.

To be continued…

Thomas Hubert