The UN General Assembly is currently discussing the terms of a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. It is likely to go to a vote next month. The last time there was such a vote (in 2010), 109 states were in favour, 41 against, and 35 abstained.
The United Kingdom and the Holy See are both against the use of the death penalty. Earlier this week, I discussed the debates at the UN with Holy See officials, and we agreed that our delegations in New York should work together on this issue.
Worldwide abolition of the death penalty remains a long term British human rights objective. In Great Britain, it was abolished for murder in 1969 (1973 in Northern Ireland) and under all circumstances in 1998. For the Holy See, although capital punishment was on the statute books of the Vatican City State between 1929 and 1969, no execution was ever carried out. The notional death penalty in the Vatican was abolished in 1969 by Pope Paul VI.
Catholic teaching does not rule out entirely the use of the death penalty, and accepts that it is a matter for individual states. But successive Popes, including Pope Benedict XVI, have made clear that the death penalty is permissible only in the narrowest of circumstances, and have supported organisations lobbying for its abolition. In his Encyclical “Evangelium Vitae”, in 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote that the death penalty might be appropriate only “in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
The UNGA vote is not binding. But it is a key indicator of opinion, and my government believes it is important to continue the trend of growing support for the resolution. This will send a strong signal to those fighting for its abolition. The Holy See and the United Kingdom can, together, play an important part in achieving this.