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Western Europe: Death Penalty Totally Abolished

Prague, 31 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In 1983, the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe -- then a largely West European organization -- flatly decreed that the death penalty be abolished in all of its member-states.

The decree came in the form of the now famous Protocol Six to the council's 1950 Human Rights Convention. The convention is the council's single most important document, a document to which all its members must adhere or face sanctions or eventual expulsion.

The protocol makes only one exception. It says a state may make provisions in its law for the death penalty in respect to acts committed in time of war or of imminent threat of war.

In the memory of council officials, there has been no instance of capital punishment in Western Europe since 1983. Certainly, council officials say, there has been no official execution in Western Europe since the protocol went into full effect five years later, in 1988.

Thirty council members have so far ratified the protocol, while five others have signed and are moving toward ratification. The last executions to take place in a non-East European council member state occurred in 1984 in Turkey while that country was under military rule. Turkey has still not signed Protocol Six.

The Council of Europe was established after World War II to promote human rights and democratic practices on the continent. Today, it has 16 members from the East and is readying itself to take in one more (Georgia) within the next few months.

In the early 1980s, however, it was strictly West European public opinion that counted. The preamble to Protocol Six cited an "evolution" that had occurred in several Council of Europe member states in favor of the abolition of the death penalty.

Amnesty International (AI) -- a human-rights organization -- says that shift in Western European public opinion was the critical factor in ending executions there. Eric Prokosch -- who runs AI's worldwide campaign to abolish the death penalty -- recalls how opinion shifted in the early 1980s:

"Few people know how much has happened in the last 25 years on the death-penalty front in Western Europe. [At the start of the 1980s,] France still had the death penalty, and there were prisoners under sentence of death there. Since then, Western Europe has become solidly anti-death penalty, and this has spread to Eastern Europe also. [True,] the same thing has happened in the rest of the world, but Western Europe is now solidly abolitionist."

Prokosch attributes the change to several factors:

"There have been [successful] campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty in particular countries, and those campaigns draw on cases of innocent people facing the death penalty or other injustices. Also, people are coming more and more to see the human-rights arguments against the death penalty, and a great deal has happened on the inter-governmental level -- in the Council of Europe, in the European Union, and some [West] European countries have taken the lead at the United Nations ... I think also that the U.S. [negative] example has had an effect on European opinion."

At the Council of Europe, the organization's Parliamentary Assembly -- made up of elected officials from all member states -- led the way to its totally abolitionist stand. In 1993, the assembly tied entry into the council to the willingness of candidate states to sign and ratify Protocol Six within three years of admission, or face sanctions and possible expulsion.

Tanya Kleinsorge handles capital-punishment questions for the assembly's Human-Rights Committee Secretariat. She acknowledges that the assembly's insistence on making Protocol Six obligatory has created problems in some member states -- but not in Western Europe.

"There was a little bit of a rocky record between 1995 and 1997 because both Russia and Ukraine couldn't live up to their commitments. But due to a lot of political pressure from the Parliamentary Assembly -- and also from the [Council of Europe's chief executive organ] the Committee of Ministers -- these countries have now backed down, and both of them have signed Protocol Six and are in the process of ratifying it."

That "little bit of a rocky record" almost led to the assembly's suspension of Ukraine's parliamentary delegation earlier this year, which would have been unprecedented at the Council of Europe.

The assembly's anger -- and Ukraine's at least verbal agreement to its demands -- demonstrate again how much European attitudes toward capital punishment have changed in the past 30 years.

(Third of four features on the death penalty in different parts of the world.)