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Simon Atkinson

Deputy Head of Mission, Cape Town

Part of UK in South Africa

22nd October 2012 Cape Town, South Africa

World Day against the Death Penalty

A guest blog by Michelle Atkinson, 2nd Secretary Political & Projects at the British High Commission in Harare

On 10 October 2012, I attended a civil society event hosted by ZACRO to celebrate the World Day against the Death Penalty. It is a day for us all to pause and ask ourselves; is there still a place for the death penalty in twenty-first century?

As a “Generation X” child in the UK, I grew up thinking the death penalty was confined to my history books. In 1965 the UK abolished the death penalty. Since then, the UK has continued to ratify legislation and in 1998 signed up to the EU Convention on Human Rights prohibiting capital punishment in all circumstances. However, I was surprised to learn recently that 57 countries still uphold the death penalty and use it regularly.  In 2011, 21 countries across the world carried out executions. Why is the death penalty still used and seen as a fair and proportionate form of justice?

The UK is opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle. We believe that the use of the death penalty: undermines human dignity; there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value; and any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable.

In the UK since 1965 we have seen a number of miscarriages of justice where someone convicted of murder has later had their conviction quashed on appeal and been released from prison. Some notable cases include the Birmingham Six (cleared in 1991 of planting an IRA bomb which killed 21 people in 1974), the Guildford Four (cleared in 1989 of murdering five people in another 1974 IRA bombing), and Barry George (who was freed in 2007 when his conviction for the 1999 murder of TV presenter Jill Dando was quashed on appeal). Innocent people would have been executed for crimes they didn’t commit. Once a person is executed it cannot be undone.

There is a growing trend to abolish this cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment. More than two thirds of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Since 2002, 21 countries have abolished capital punishment for all crimes, including several from Africa. Across SADC countries the appetite for the death penalty in vanishing. Only Botswana has used it in recent years, and Angola, Mauritius, Mozampbique, Namibia, Seychelles and South Africa have already abolished it for all crimes. The battle to abolish the death penalty is being won across Africa; however Zimbabwe is currently not on the winning side. In Zimbabwe, there are currently approximately 58 individuals under a sentence of death. Although Zimbabwe does not have an official moratorium on the death penalty, the last execution was in 2004.

The UK will be supporting the resolution at the UN General Assembly later this year calling for a moratorium on the death penalty and urges all other countries to do the same. This is something we as citizens in the twenty-first century can urge our governments to sign up to.

The death penalty is not justice; it is the failure of justice. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.

About Simon Atkinson

Simon Atkinson was born and spent the first 9 years of his life in New Zealand, before his family moved to the less leafy suburbs of Wallington, South London. After…

Simon Atkinson was born and spent the first 9 years of his life in New Zealand, before his family moved to the less leafy suburbs of Wallington, South London. After university at Leeds and 4 years teaching English and working for NGOs in Europe and South America, Simon joined the UK Foreign Office. His first overseas posting was in India, where he was a political officer covering issues like counter-proliferation and the relationship between India and its neighbours. He was also the Commonwealth Games Attaché during Delhi’s 2010 Games.

Cape Town is his second and current posting. His role here is dual hatted – as Deputy Consul General, he supports the Consul General manage the office, and as the Head of the Political Team, he covers the whole gambit of South African policy (though being based in Cape Town means this is heavily focused on domestic policies and Parliament).

Simon is married to Gina, who also works for the Foreign Office. They enjoy being in South Africa, as both a fascinating country to cover politically and wonderful place to live, allowing them to pursue their passion for the outdoors and perfect their ability to ‘braai’ (not that they’re under any illusion about how often they’ll get to demonstrate this skill once they return to the UK)!