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Simon Atkinson

Deputy Head of Mission, Cape Town

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in South Africa

9th October 2013 Cape Town, South Africa

World Day against the Death Penalty

The following is a guest post by Laura Clarke, Political Counsellor.

10 October is World Day against the Death Penalty. Since 2003, people all over the world have, on this day, been making clear their opposition to this form of punishment. Like many people who live in countries which, like South Africa and the UK, have abolished the death penalty, I don’t actually think about it that often.

Laura Clarke
Laura Clarke

But today is a day to reflect on how far we have come, internationally, and how much more there is to do to promote worldwide abolition of the death penalty.

Living and working in South Africa, I’ve come to understand South Africa’s particularly painful experience of the death penalty. The apartheid government performed 2,949 hangings between 1959 and 1989, of which 1,123 happened in the 1980s, at the height of the struggle against apartheid.  164 people were executed in 1987 alone.

It’s hard to think of those numbers in terms of individuals, but the personal stories brings home the tragedy of it all:  for example I recently watched the film Amandla!, which tells the story of Vuyusili Mini, a composer and activist who was hanged in 1964 for his protest songs.  The end of apartheid meant the end of the death penalty.

Capital punishment was abolished in South Africa in June 1995, by ruling of the Constitutional Court, and South Africa’s Bill of Rights guarantees the right to life.

The UK Government shares South Africa’s belief, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, that the death penalty has no place in the modern world. We believe that it undermines human dignity, and see no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value. And any miscarriage of justice leading to the death penalty is irreversible and irreparable.

Members of Amnesty International and Fre

I think this last point resonates particularly in the UK: following the executions of Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley in the 1950s, the state admitted that mistakes had been made at both men’s trials, and both were pardoned posthumously. These cases persuaded Parliament to act to restrict the use of the death penalty.

The last execution in the UK was in 1964, and in 1998, Parliament formally abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

The worldwide abolition of the death penalty is an important goal in our foreign policy.  South Africa and the UK were two of the 111 states who, at the UN in December 2011, voted in favour of a worldwide moratorium on executions.  This was the greatest vote yet against the death penalty – but there is still a way to go.

I understand from Amnesty International that 21 countries applied the death penalty in 2012, and experts estimate that 3,600 executions took place across the world. The majority of these are in China, followed, in terms of numbers, by Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

The UK works closely with EU and other like-minded partners, such as South Africa, to gain support for abolition of the death penalty, or at least a moratorium on its use.

I believe that South Africa’s own history gives it a particular moral authority, in Africa and beyond, which individuals like Archbishop Tutu have used to good effect in lobbying countries that maintain the death penalty.  And with influential figures such as Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma as AU Commission Chair, and Navi Pillay as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, South Africa has great influence on the global stage, and a huge amount to contribute to this vital campaign.

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)!