It is the longstanding policy of the UK to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle. But Parliament this week held an emergency debate following the revelation that the Government has compromised this policy.
The government intends to provide evidence for a trial in the US of two IS fighters who are alleged to have been involved in the murder of captives held in Syria by IS.
The Home Secretary, Rt Hon Sajid Javid has chosen not to obtain assurances from the US that they would not face the death penalty.
We agree that those guilty of heinous crimes must be brought to justice. But Home Office Minister, Ben Wallace, responding on behalf of the Government, turned upside-down the UK’s longstanding principles on human rights and the right to life with the following comment: –
“All states, including those that oppose the death penalty, use lethal force when they have to do so to keep themselves secure. We risk being seen as hypocrites if we say that we will never make an exception for assurances [not to use the death penalty], while being prepared to use lethal force on the battlefield to kill people without due process. That is the balance that we always have to strike. It is not easy, but we do it to try to keep people safe.”
In response we have written to the Minister as follows: –
Dear Mr Wallace
As a former military officer you will know far better than most that on the battlefield, once a person is captured and therefore is ‘hors de combat’, they cannot be killed. Their right to life must be protected. This is fundamental to international humanitarian law and the UK’s own ‘Terms of Engagement’. Similarly UK soldiers when captured and held by a foreign state must be protected under international law and the same applies to anyone of any other nationality. A breach of this principle is a war crime.
Outside of a battlefield situation the UK has similarly insisted on upholding the right to life. The UK has argued that imprisonment, not execution, is used to ensure public safety. Consequently, on the necessity to kill, there is no ‘balance’ to be made as you have suggested.
You suggest that to insist that public safety is never a valid reason for executing people, risks hypocrisy. We profoundly disagree. On the contrary, it would be more obviously hypocritical to insist that the death penalty might be necessary to protect British citizens but that it is not necessary to protect Saudi Arabian, Chinese or other citizens in places where sadly it is still carried out.
We would be grateful to receive a clarification from you on this issue and on the UK government’s commitment to the promotion of human rights instruments that address the right to life in all circumstances.
Policy Adviser, The Joint Public Issues Team.
There have also been statements from the President and Vice-President of Methodist Conference and from The Church of Scotland on the prosecution of the two IS fighters.