Death penalty

The death penalty: a few notions

Belgium, along with a great many other countries, believes that the death penalty is a serious assault on human dignity. The dissuasive effect of this punishment has not been proven and since it is irreversible, it is impossible to subsequently grant reprieve. In Belgium, the last execution took place in 1950 and this sentence was abolished by law in punishment for any crime whatsoever in 1996. Nevertheless, the sentence is not prohibited per se in international law, which simply lays down basic standards that limit its application to the most serious cases. In recent years there has been a general tendency at international level to abolish the death penalty or to not apply it in practice. However, the death penalty is still inflicted in over 50 countries worldwide. In some countries, it is even used in violation of basic humanitarian standards and requirements for judicial and administrative transparency.

International and regional instruments

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that in countries where the death penalty has not been abolished, it may only be imposed:

  • for the most serious crimes;
  • by virtue of a final judgment ruled by a court with jurisdiction ;
  • solely for crimes committed by adults
  • not against pregnant women.

The second Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has the aim of encouraging member states to abolish the death penalty. To date, seventy-one states have signed this instrument.

At the Council of Europe level:

  • Additional Protocol 6 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1983) prohibits the use of the death penalty in peacetime.
  • Additional Protocol 13 (2003) prohibits it under all circumstances, including in wartime or in imminent danger of war.
  • The 47 member states of the Council of Europe have either abolished the death penalty or have instated a moratorium on executions. The abolition of the death penalty is now a condition for joining the organisation. 

Belgian and European Union Initiatives

Belgium and the European Union both strongly condemn the use of the death penalty. They have long been working to fight this practice on the international scene, as well as in their bilateral contacts.

In December 2008, the EU Member States were the originators of a resolution adopted at the UN General Assembly calling for a moratorium on the application of the death penalty. This resolution gained support from a large number of countries from different regions of the world, which is a further step towards universal abolition.

European Union Guidelines

The guidelines are documents adopted by the EU to describe the different ways in which to implement EU human rights priorities in its relations with third countries. In 1998 the European Union adopted guidelines on the death penalty. Their aim is to:

  • establish periodic reports on the situation in third countries;
  • encourage third countries to abolish, or to no longer apply the death penalty, or at least to restrict its use to the most serious crimes, as well as conforming to basic international standards;
  • encourage the ratification of international instruments on the issue;
  • make representations or declarations to denounce cases where these principles are not respected, or to encourage positive developments in this respect;
  • address the issue of abolition or a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in contacts with third countries and in international forums.

 General Assembly resolution on a moratorium on the death penalty  (PDF, 23.83 KB)

Council of Europe initiatives against the death penalty 

EU guidelines on the death penalty