British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone on death penalty

22 November 2011 at 05:44 | 2354 views

By Ian Hughes, British High Commissioner, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Benjamin Franklin said that only death and taxation were certain. He may have been right, but his two certainties could hardly be more different.

Death is part of the immutable framework of life. It existed before humanity came to be. It will exist long after we are gone. We each have but one life which once taken away cannot be returned.

Taxation is a human law. It changes with human experience, with society’s preferences. It can go up or down; it can be applied rigorously or forgiven; overpayments can be refunded.

Death’s permanence is the root of my problem with capital punishment.

We yearn for justice, strive for it, and demand respect for it. Yet our expectations of it change from generation to generation, from year to year, from experience to experience. In its essence, justice is an aspiration. While trying to work out how to achieve it, we settle for the rule of law, which hard experience shows is our best defence – often our only defence –against another law: that of the jungle.

The rule of law tells you that if you do certain things you will be punished: steal from your neighbour, punished like this; bribe a judge, punished like that; kill someone, punished like the other. Does the law dispense justice? Sometimes. Is it effective? Sometimes. Is it wrong? Sometimes. And if the law can make mistakes, its decisions must be reversible.

Execution – legal killing to enforce the law – has been with us for as long as there have been laws. It used to be applied widely. Nowadays it is mostly reserved for murder. If you take a life, the law can say, you forfeit your own.

Is execution consistent with the rule of law? Yes. Is it also justice? Sometimes. Is it right? No. Why not? Because the rule of law is unjust if it is incorrectly applied: mistakes must be correctable. And miscarriages of justice in capital cases cannot be repaired. It is therefore a longstanding point of principle for UK governments to oppose capital punishment in all circumstances.

While there have been no executions in Sierra Leone since 1998, execution is mandatory for murder convictions. A number of Salone men and women languish on Death Row in Pademba Road.

Many Sierra Leoneans I talk to believe that the threat of execution is essential to keep the peace. I respect that view, but disagree with it and hope to change it as part of a debate between us on what democracy means, how it works, and what it aspires to be.

My team and I have been working with our EU colleagues to engage with government, Parliament and Civil Society. We hope the moratorium will evolve into full-fledged abolition soon. In the meantime we encourage and support those like Advocaid who facilitate effective measures to examine the facts, procedures and circumstances relating to capital cases considered by the Judiciary.

I point to the discharge by the Court of Appeal in March of “MK”, the longest serving woman on Pademba Road’s death row. The Honourable Justices’ decision demonstrates my point about the need to be able to reverse decisions that may be mistaken.

Today is the eighth World Day against the Death Penalty. Around the world British Ambassadors and High Commissioners are marking this occasion with discussions with governments, civil societies and Parliaments. In London our Human Rights Minister, Jeremy Browne, has made a statement setting out the case for permanent abolition of this measure.

I am pleased that the government of Sierra Leone, too, is active. In April President Koroma commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment, and three death-row prisoners have been pardoned. Abolition is on the legislative agenda but it needs to move from theory to practice. It has been discussed during the Constitutional Review Process, and will continue to be a topic there after the 2012 election.

I welcome this debate and encourage further action to bring Sierra Leone justice into the twenty first century.

The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report said: "Respect for human dignity and human rights must begin with respect for human life. Everyone has the right to life. A society that accords the highest respect for human life is unlikely to turn on itself….The abolition of the death penalty will mark and important and symbolic departure from the past to the future”. What do you think?