The UK needs to condemn executions in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran

The rise in capital punishments worldwide should bring action from the UK’s foreign office, but it has been criticised for deprioritising human rights2892

Driven by unprecedented execution sprees in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the use of the death penalty has reached an all-time high, according to figures published by Amnesty International. An alarming proportion of those executed were carried out for non-violent crimes, including drug offences and attendance at political protests.

UK human rights minister Baroness Anelay said the government was “deeply troubled” by this resurgence in the use of the death penalty. But her words rang hollow just hours after parliament’s foreign affairs committee (FAC) warned that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) recent approach “raises questions about how energetically the government is raising human rights issues”.

Indeed, though the UK has historically been a leading voice in opposition to the death penalty, the last year has seen a shift, with trade apparently given precedence over human rights. In October 2015 the FCO’s permanent under-secretary, Sir Simon McDonald confirmed to the FAC that human rights were “not one of our top priorities” and that “the prosperity agenda is further up the list”.

Baroness Anelay has repeatedly stressed that “we make our opposition well known at the highest levels to countries which continue to apply [the death penalty]”. But as the MPs’ report pointed out, ministers have all too often dodged the issue in diplomatic settings, even in one case failing to remember whether or not human rights had been discussed during a business delegation to Egypt.

It is easy for ministers to condemn the death penalty in principle from Foreign Office briefing rooms. But if these words are to mean anything, the UK must be willing to engage in targeted ways on specific cases, including making its concerns public where appropriate. The countries driving a global surge in executions are among the UK’s closest allies. This gives us a voice and we should use it in service of our values.

In Pakistan, for example, 400 people have been executed since December 2014, when the Pakistani government began a brutal execution campaign waged under the pretext of fighting terrorists. The vast majority of people hanged were charged with crimes bearing no resemblance to terrorism and a number have been proved to be juveniles. Despite this, the UK continues to cooperate with Pakistani police forces which actively boast about the death sentences they secure.

In Saudi Arabia, the government has executed more than 80 prisoners this year alone – a rate that has it on course to double its executions total for 2015. The cause of the spree appears to be a simple attempt to crush dissent and calls for reform, following the new king’s accession to the throne. But instead of condemning the execution of juveniles who participated in political protests, the UK’s response has been pusillanimous, with the foreign secretary appearing to defend the country’s actions on the basis that those executed were “terrorists” – a characterisation which is demonstrably untrue.

The UK might not have the same diplomatic ties to Iran that we do to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, but our recent resumption of diplomatic relations with the country presents an opportunity for genuine dialogue on human rights issues. In this light it is far from encouraging that foreign secretary Philip Hammond pledged to discuss drug enforcement efforts with Iran in the same year the country executed more than 600 non-violent drug offenders.

When the UK uses its voice to oppose these injustices, it makes a difference. In April 2013, David Cameron spoke out about the torture and abuse of three young men facing death sentences for drug offences in the UAE. It’s no coincidence that the men were included in a pardon that saw them released from detention in July that same year.

It is to be hoped that we will see similar targeted interventions in other cases. Andy Tsege is a British father of three who was kidnapped in June 2014 and rendered to Ethiopia, where he has been held under sentence of death imposed in absentia ever since. Rather than condemning the unlawful abuses, the UK government has limited itself to pushing for consular access and a lawyer for Andy.

The death penalty has never been about justice or law enforcement; citizens are no safer for living under the shadow of the gallows. Capital punishment is, in fact, all about power and positioning, and the governments of Saudi, Pakistan and Iran see the death penalty as a political asset.

Nations that oppose the death penalty, among which the UK should be foremost, should not shrink from showing our allies that its use carries a political cost.

Maya Foa is the death penalty director at Reprieve. Follow @mayafoa on Twitter.

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