Japan's Observer Status to the Council of Europe Under Threat because of the Death Penalty
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
The European Union and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have repeatedly called upon Japan to place an immediate moratorium on all executions and to abolish the death penalty. However, as a result of inaction on the part of Japan, the Assembly has decided to call into question the continuing Observer status of Japan within the Organization as a whole if no significant progress is made by 1 January 2003. The above resolution (1253) was adopted on 25 June 2001 and time is quickly running out.
For a number of years now, Japan and the US have been singled out by the European Union as the only major industrialized countries to enforce the death penalty. In particular, the EU has accused Japan of not abiding by its international commitments as specifically outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that regulates the use of the death penalty and the treatment of prisoners on Death Row.
In light of these violations, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe found it necessary on 25 January 2001 to reaffirm its commitment to making the abolition of capital punishment a condition to Observer status to the Assembly. In resolution 1253, the Assembly defined Japan's actions as "torture and inhuman and degrading punishment", reaffirming its view that the death penalty had no legitimate place in the penal systems of modern civilized societies. The resolution also voiced specific concern about the conditions on Death Row in Japan, which exacerbate the mental illness known as the Death Row phenomenon and reminded Japan that such conditions were declared to be a violation of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights in 1989.
According to Statutory Resolution (93)26 of the Assembly, all states that have Observer status must be willing to accept the principles of democracy, the rule of law and the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms. As an Observer to the Assembly since 1996, Japan is bound to adhere to these obligations if it is to maintain its privileged status.
In Europe, where there is a high degree of sensitivity towards the death penalty and where the application of the death penalty is viewed as a violation of the most fundamental human rights, Japan's penal system is considered to be barbaric in nature. According to reports conducted by international human rights organizations and widely published in major European newspapers such as the BBC, El Pais and Le Monde Diplomatique, Japan's image as a civilized country is being questioned. Human rights reports on Japan describe a situation where Death Row prisoners often have no right to visitation, correspondence and exercise and where many have been held in almost complete isolation for years. Europeans are also shocked about the situation of extreme secrecy that surrounds executions in Japan where prisoners, lawyers and family members remain in the dark as to when the execution will take place.
European countries are concerned about the lack of any formal procedure for obtaining pardons. Amnesty International reported that under the Japanese system, government authorities have no legal obligation to reply within a given time to a petition sent by a prisoner or his/her lawyer, or to give reasons for refusal. In relation to this, Amnesty cited a case where a prisoner who was mentally ill was executed in Japan even though his lawyer had applied for a retrial and had notified the authorities of the mental illness.
People are also aware of individual cases such as that of Tsuneyoshi Tomiyama who is 80 years old and has spent 30 years under the sentence of death. They know of Iwao Hakamada who is 61 and has spent 28 years on Death Row. The case of Sakae Mendo (76 yrs) who spent over 36 years on Death Row after being falsely accused of murder was also widely reported.
Europeans believe that criminals can be rehabilitated and do not understand why such an advanced country like Japan continues to support capital punishment. Many were dumbfounded to hear that as much as 80 percent of the Japanese populace supported the death penalty according to a recent poll conducted by the Prime Minister's Office. While Europe's march towards abolition began in 1867 with Portugal taking the first step. EU citizens wonder why the practice still exists in the 21st century despite there being no scientific proof that it prevents violent crimes and in spite of an international consensus to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has indicated that it "deplores" the fundamental differences in values regarding the abolition of the death penalty between itself and Japan. Viewing the application of the death penalty as a violation of the right to life and the right to be protected against torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, the Assembly has found Japan in violation of its obligations as an Observer to the Council.
Japan's maintenance of the death penalty and the inhuman conditions on Death Row serve as an obstacle to close relations between Europe and Japan. The two already share many common values and have committed themselves to protecting human rights. It is important that Japan take this opportunity to reaffirm its international commitments. Action towards this end will represent a major step closer to the creation of a strong partnership with the EU and its people.