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EU: Council Of Europe Seeks Trans-Atlantic Dialogue On Death Penalty

  • Don Hill

The Council of Europe is flirting with canceling the observer status of the United States and Japan -- two nations where the death penalty continues to be imposed. In debate on 1 October, the council opted to continue a campaign to engage both countries in dialogue. The council is posing this question to the United States: What kind of observer won't even talk to us?

Prague, 2 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Council of Europe -- having largely killed the death penalty on the continent -- turned its attentions again this week to the United States and Japan.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on 1 October for new efforts to engage both countries in discussions of their continued applications of the death penalty.

Forty-five European nations make up the Council of Europe, which was founded shortly after the end of World War II as a guardian of human rights in Europe. In the years since, the council has developed into an influential voice for human rights.

It has become the conscience of Europe.

One of its greatest successes has been its drive to eliminate the death penalty across Europe. All but three council members have abolished the death penalty. Those who have not abolished it -- Russia, Turkey, and Serbia and Montenegro -- have imposed moratoriums on executions.

But the United States has carried out 137 executions since June 2001, while Japan has conducted four. This is a concern for the European body because both countries hold observer status with the Council of Europe, allowing them to participate in many of its deliberations.

The Council of Europe has a statute requiring that observer nations must accept the human rights principles of the council. Some council delegates are again raising the possibility of stripping the United States and Japan of their observer status.

In a PACE debate yesterday, British delegate Frank Judd came down especially hard on the United States, not only for the continued application of the death penalty but also for its continued refusal even to provide representatives to discuss the issue.

But Judd stopped short of asking for immediate sanctions: "But perhaps put in a stronger plea to the United States, as observers of our Council of Europe, that, 'Please do not regard our approaches to you as something you should rebuff. Please understand that we really want dialogue. If you don't talk to us, we can't participate and, indeed, what kind of an observer of our debates are you?'"

Renate Wohlwend, rapporteur for the council's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, told the council that she favors continued efforts to seek U.S.-European dialogue despite the lack of response from the United States so far.

"It is a little discouraging for my colleagues in the rights committee and for everyone in the assembly. It should be valid, however, that we will not permit ourselves to be discouraged, but we will continue our battle on many fronts to abolish the death penalty also in the observer states," Wohlwend said.

Wohlwend marveled at the council's success in recent years in winning the abolition of the death penalty in the formerly communist nations of Eastern and Central Europe. Capital punishment had been entrenched there as one of the customary sentencing options.

"And a few years ago, it was unimaginable for the respective member states and for all of us that Europe would become so quickly a continent without the death penalty. And this should encourage us to try to continue the trans-Atlantic dialogue with the United States and also pursue further the dialogue we have begun with Japan," Wohlwend said.

Following Wohlwend to the podium, Malcolm Bruce of Britain also spoke of disappointment: "And, indeed, [I] can understand [Wohlwend's] disappointment at the difficulties we have had in persuading our two [observer] states, as she rightly says, to engage in a dialogue and debate. I think we are willing to respect that they have a point of view they wish to argue, but their unwillingness in some cases to argue it, I think, is gravely disappointing."

When council members questioned the observer status of the United States in 2002, a U.S. spokesman said Washington values its interaction with the council. State Department spokesman Larry Schwartz said the United States hopes the council "will broaden its view" to include the benefits of continued trans-Atlantic cooperation.

However, the United States has not addressed its lack of response to invitations for dialogue on the issue. Japan, meanwhile, has presented representatives to the council to discuss the issue.

In a statement, the council said talks with Japan are "fruitful and ongoing," while dialogue had "largely failed with the U.S."

After yesterday's debate, Wohlwend told RFE/RL that the question of terminating the observer status of the United States was raised once more but that her committee's report recommended a softer approach.

"It came up in the debate, but as the report was in a more mild tone -- may I say -- first we have to get the dialogue and then we can discuss the question of observer status. But first talk to them and find the dialogue," Wohlwend said.

Wohlwend recalled that eliminating the death penalty in Europe was a long, uphill journey against public opinion. It was made possible by what she called "serious politicians" who were willing to take personal stands.

"I think it was possible, as some very tough and serious politicians took the stand [and] point of view by presenting to the public their personal opinion that the death penalty was no good, that the right to life was the priority human right and that the state shouldn't kill," Wohlwend said.

In a memorandum to the PACE, Wohlwend wrote that observer states have a moral obligation to engage in dialogue with the Council of Europe on matters of common concern. She wrote: "Dialogue is only the first minimum requirement of successful cooperation."

The assembly warned that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the observer status of the United States. It called for a new report on the issue in January.

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