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Crimes Against Humanity

Prof William Schabas

ROLE: Professor of International Law
SCHOOL & DEPARTMENT: School of Law Department of Law and Politics

An internationally respected human rights academic in international and criminal human rights law, Professor William Schabas, Middlesex's professor of international law, is also an expert on genocide, having helped to refine the term's meaning and written a seminal text on the subject. He is the author of a number of key books on the international criminal court.

But it is his work on the death penalty around the world that may be having the greatest impact. An expert in and advocate of the abolition of the death penalty, Professor Schabas is being commissioned for the second time to prepare a report for the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the status of the death penalty. He prepared a similar report published in 2010.

Professor Schabas regularly attends the UN to speak to ambassadors there. "Some of them are looking for good arguments against it, and some of them are there to raise the argument for it. There are ambassadors for countries who still have the death penalty as well some who are trying to promote its abolition.  Some of them argue that the death penalty is a deterrent but I tell them that we can't prove that the death penalty is more of a deterrent than a serious term of imprisonment, and we can't disprove it – it's a dead end of an argument and nobody wins it."

Over recent years, Professor Schabas has been active in visiting and discouraging countries in Asia and the Middle East from using the death penalty, where he has been a part of promoting the progressive move towards abolition. "Thailand has stopped using executions in the last few years and Vietnam has dramatically decreased its use. I have been there with other international experts to try and encourage that and provide them with arguments for why they should abolish it," he says. "I am usually explaining to them that there are global trends towards abolition of the death penalty and am trying to get them to reflect on the fact that they are increasingly isolated globally on the issue."

Professor Schabas, who is often cited as an expert witness in court cases on the issue, says: "It's been a big part of my life. An important part of the work I do is in countries that do use it, in convincing them to use it less."

Twenty years ago, two thirds of the world's countries had the death penalty and used it, which is more than 100 countries. Today fewer than 40 countries use the death penalty, and the numbers continue to decline. Of those that still do use capital punishment, many have significantly reduced the number of executions they carry out.  This marks a very significant change which Middlesex is incredibly proud to have been a part of. Professor Schabas's work will see him continuing to be a significant player in the global process. He says:  "I am part of a greater whole, of many people who make their contributions. My piece of it is really the academy, the university, the expertise on the law."

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