The European Union called on Japan on Monday to abolish the death penalty, saying “it is a key priority of our external human rights policy” to work toward its universal elimination to protect human dignity.
“As friends, we have an obligation to speak up. Application of the death penalty in Japan, in the 21st century, is running against the global trend,” said Francesco Fini, EU Delegation minister to Japan. “We hope that Japan will finally join the big and growing family of countries without the death penalty.”
He made the comments in a speech at a Tokyo symposium on capital punishment sponsored by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.
The federation is seeking the abolition of the death penalty by 2020, when the U.N. Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice will be held in Japan.
Fini said governments are obliged under international law “not to impose cruel and unusual punishment even on the worst criminals” in view of the fundamental human dignity of every person, “even on someone who has committed the most atrocious crime.”
He said it has not been proved that the “death penalty has a direct correlation with reducing serious crime, or that abolishing it increases serious crime.”
Fini also noted that while no court system is perfect, the death penalty is irreversible. “If a mistake is made, and then discovered, a person who was wrongfully executed can never be brought back.”
Commenting on a government survey that shows more than 80 percent of people in Japan support the death penalty, Fini said “public opinion can change, and depends on information, courage and leadership.” The history of the abolition of the death penalty in Europe “was driven by brave women and men that exercised leadership to inform the public.”
Legal experts and lawmakers also joined the symposium. Maiko Tagusari, a Tokyo-based lawyer, said: “We cannot avoid miscarriages of justice, as our legal system is operated by human beings. And it is impossible to make a distinction between those who should be executed and those who should not.”
Sayaka Sasaki, an Upper House member from Komeito, a coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told the symposium that many people believe judges never make mistakes and that prosecutors only indict the guilty.
“But we need to have a common recognition that they also make mistakes” in thinking about how to deal with the capital punishment system, Sasaki said.
In Japan, anti-death penalty campaigners sometimes clash with victims of crimes or their next of kin.
Referring to victims and their families, the EU’s Fini said, “We should do everything we can to alleviate” their emotional burden.
He also said, however, that “using the victims’ families’ legitimate grief to justify executions, and taking a life as a response to crime is just fulfilling a cycle of misery.”
Japan has faced international criticism over capital punishment, with the U.N. Human Rights Committee in 2014 urging Japan to “give due consideration to the abolition of the death penalty.”
Tokyo most recently hanged an inmate on Nov. 11 — the 17th execution in almost four years during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s current term as Japan’s leader.
The move prompted the EU Delegation to issue a statement together with the heads of mission of EU member states and the heads of mission of Norway and Switzerland, saying, “We hold a strong and principled position against the death penalty and we are opposed to the use of capital punishment under any circumstances.”
At the symposium, Shinji Oguma, a Lower House member from the main opposition force, the Democratic Party, said, “maintaining the death penalty has ruined the image of Japan, as the international community thinks Japan does not share the same values” at a time when more than two-thirds of nations have abolished the death penalty by law or in practice.
“It calls into question how Japan should be when we think about how to deal with the death penalty,” he said.