On the 1st July 2002, I was invited to join the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Death Penalty Panel, as a representative of PHR-UK, and to meet the Foreign Secretary Mr. Jack Straw. The small group included Lady Vivienne Stern of NACRO, Prof. Roger Hood of the University of Oxford, Prof. Peter Hodgkinson of the University of Westminster’s Centre on the Death Penalty, Mr. Philip Sapsford QC, Head of Goldsmith’s Chambers, Mr. Saul Lehrfreund, a lawyer involved in several Caribbean cases, and representatives of Amnesty International-UK and A-I’s International Section. Foreign Office officials also attended.
Mr. Straw took the Chair and responded actively to all the points raised. Among these were: the gradual diminution of the death penalty in the USA, some success in having it commuted in the Caribbean and Belize, the possible influence of the FCO in reducing the use of the death penalty and torture abroad.
I took the opportunity of pointing out that both the electric chair and hanging were extremely painful and humiliating, contrary to popular opinion in the US and the West Indies. The electric chair as sole method of execution was used only in about four states in the US, where lethal injection was now the most widely used method of execution. One of the reasons execution remained in many countries was because it was viewed as cheaper than prolonged imprisonment. I suggested this could be an area for research by human rights groups. I also reminded the Foreign Secretary that, on its own admission, China executed more people than did the rest of the world put together. The Foreign Secretary said he would raise this with the Government when he visited China shortly.
After an informal lunch, panel members met several members of the Human Rights Policy Department (HRPD), including its Head, and the Heads of Departments concerned with China and with North America. I also discussed informally the possibility of the UK attempting to add Protocols to the Geneva Convention, extending to civilians and the prohibition of torture, an area on which PHR-UK might well advise.
(Editor’s note: PHR-UK is delighted that Harold Hillman agreed to accept its nomination to the Foreign Office’s Death Penalty Panel. Dr. Hillman is a pain specialist, who has published on medical aspects of the death penalty. He has provided written testimony for cases involving the death penalty in the United States, and is well known to a number of the Panel’s members. In our view, Dr. Hillman’s medical expertise provides an essential element to the Panel’s thinking, and we are currently seeking funding to enable him to brief the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva.
The Foreign Secretary’s Death Penalty Panel, which usually meets twice each year, advises the FCO on practical measures to promote the universal abolition of the death penalty. It was established by the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in 1998. Members maintain contact with the HRPD and relevant geographical departments. They are unpaid for their work.)