Dáil Éireann - Volume 482 - 23 October, 1997

Adjournment Debate. - Death Penalty.

Mr. Durkan: As all Members will know, quite an amount of public attention was devoted to the application of the death penalty in Missouri, United States to the late Mr. Alan J. Bannister who was executed by lethal injection there yesterday morning.

If we look at the overall use of the death penalty throughout the civilised world and in places where for one reason or another, we have come to expect its application, its continued use there, to the extent it is, is a reflection on all of us.

My reason for raising this issue this afternoon is to ensure that our Government and Minister for Foreign Affairs, within the international arena, voices our abhorrence at its continued use, at the same time pointing out that the death penalty, in this case, is a reaction 15 years after the event which led to its application. While not wishing to comment on that event itself — obviously the perpetrator of a crime is entitled to pay a price of one kind or another — spending 15 years on death row is a price in itself.

The next issue is when society decides to exact the maximum penalty in much the same way as was done in the days of the French Revolution when somebody decided to devise a humane form of killing, the guillotine, which as we all know was not at all as humane as it appeared at the time. That guillotine proposal in the course of the French Revolution was an attempt to assuage the [322] feelings of the French community of the day, to satisfy them that this constituted the ultimate method of dealing with the problem in a humane way.

If we are to become the civilised people we think we are, it behoves us all, particularly people in countries like ours that abolished the death penalty many years ago, who have a role to play within the international arena, to bring our abhorrence of this continued practice to the attention of those so-called very civilised countries who continue to resort to that extreme method of punishment.

I request the Minister to use all the means at his disposal, not only in relation to the United States but to other jurisdictions which continue to use that ultimate weapon to deal with crime, to dissuade them from continuing this practice. It does nothing to address victims' problems or for society. It merely indicts society for doing the same thing it accused the criminal of doing in the first instance.

Mr. Andrews: I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this important issue this afternoon. It is also opportune that I express my deep concern about the continued use of the death penalty as an instrument of judicial punishment. I share his disquiet and no doubt that of many other Members and of the Irish people about the execution by lethal injection of Mr. Alan J. Bannister in Missouri yesterday morning. This is not the time to enter into a discussion of the complex legal issues surrounding his case. However, the human factors lying at the heart of the debate on capital punishment were laid before the country on radio in a very real way yesterday morning when RTÉ broadcast a taped conversation between Mr. Pat Kenny and the condemned individual which I understand was a disturbing experience for all who heard it. I did not have an opportunity of listening but am anxious to obtain a tape of the conversation and reflect on its contents.

It is opportune to restate the Government's total opposition to the use of the death penalty. As Deputy Durkan is probably aware, the death penalty has not been carried out in this country since 1954 and, ten years later, capital punishment was abolished for all but a very limited number of offences. Ireland formally abolished the death penalty for all offences, whether civil or military, in 1990 with the passage of the Criminal Justice Act, 1990. During the relevant debate in the House the then Minister for Justice, in eliminating the measure from our Statue Book stated:

We will, as a society, signal our concern for the dignity and sanctity of human life and strengthen our standing internationally as a country concerned to promote human rights and civilised values.

All of us would agree with those sentiments.

Aware of the international human rights dimension to this question, Ireland became a party to the Second Optional Protocol to the [323] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1993 and to Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms the following year, both of which instruments provide for the abolition of the death penalty.

As a country we avail of every opportunity to press for the abolition of the death penalty both within the United Nations and Council of Europe mechanisms. In such international fora Ireland views this issue from a human rights perspective and lays stress on the need to protect that most fundamental of human rights, the right to life. It is our firm belief the State has a duty to safeguard that right. Therefore, all steps which assist in the abolition of capital punishment are to be welcomed as contributing to greater respect for and protection of human rights.

The abolition of capital punishment in all countries worldwide would represent a major step toward full and universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Therefore, the carrying out of executions is deeply regretted by the Government and, I believe, by the Irish people on two levels; obviously on the personal level for those subjected to this ultimate punishment, but also as a setback for that goal of universal respect for human rights. Such executions display a deep lack of respect for the dignity of human life.

Given this perspective, it is not surprising that Ireland gave strong backing at the UN General Assembly in 1994 to an Italian resolution which called for the abolition of the death penalty. That resolution also called for a moratorium on pending executions “with a view to ensuring that the principle that no State should dispose of the life of any human being be affirmed in every part of the world by the year 2000”. We wholeheartedly support the sentiments expressed in that resolution but, despite the best efforts of our own delegation and other supportive delegations, it was defeated following a heated debate in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly.

On a more positive note, Ireland worked closely with a number of other Governments in preparing the resolution on the abolition of the death penalty which was adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights at its 53rd session on 3 April 1997. Again, that resolution was tabled by the Italian delegation. It calls on states which use the death penalty and which are party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to consider ratifying the Second Optional Protocol which is aimed at abolition of the death penalty. It further urges such states to respect safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty and reiterates its conviction that the abolition would contribute both to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights.

During the debate on this item our delegation made clear Ireland's fundamental opposition to the use of the death penalty in any circumstances [324] and called upon all states to cease immediately applying the death penalty. In particular, we laid emphasis on our belief that the death penalty is a human rights issue and is thus a matter of legitimate concern to the international community in line with the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights in l993. I understand that the resolution which was adopted enjoyed widespread geographic support and was the first such resolution adopted by the commission for many years. Ireland played a major role in this significant endeavour.

At its 53rd session, the Commission on Human Rights decided to continue consideration of the issue at its next session which will take place in the spring of l998. I assure the House and the Deputy that Ireland will continue to take a strong position on the question of abolishing capital punishment at that session. It is through the process of persuasion, not confrontation, that I hope we will soon be able to convince those states who do not share our views to change their minds on this issue. Through such dialogue at an international level we look forward to the day when actions such as that in Missouri yesterday morning will become a thing of a darker and less humane past.