Universitas Helsingiensis

Crime and punishment in the EU

Crime and punishment in the EUThe attempts of the European Union to harmonise criminal law and criminal sanctions in the European Union is leading to an approach that contains elements foreign to Nordic criminal policy.

European culture has traditionally set great store by democracy, human rights and rule of law. In practice, however, these have had varying manifestations in the different legal systems of Europe. “All EU Member States have signed the European Convention on Human Rights and are therefore bound by it. Problems arise from the divergent implementation of the Convention. It is usually a matter of details, for example evidence can be treated differently in different countries, and in some Member States sentences may also be passed in absentia,” says Raimo Lahti, Professor of Criminal Law.

Opening national borders has made crime more international and at the same time has placed pressure on harmonising European regulations of criminal offences and sanctions. Organised crime, such as drug trafficking and money laundering, is already commonplace, and from the perspective of the EU, the protection of its financial interests is also significant.

“It is also much easier for criminals to escape to another country. The European Arrest Warrant is a means by which countries have endeavoured to make it easier to extradite criminals to the country where the offence took place. Here, as well as in all questions related to criminal law, efficiency and individual rights are juxtaposed, and we are seeking to strike a balance between the two,” says Lahti.

Punishments reflect society

Nordic countries have voiced criticism of the increased repression in the Europeanisation of criminal law, maintaining that the tougher punishment level adopted by the EU legislative instruments is not sensible. Professor Lahti who is a noted opinion leader, and has from the beginning of his long career worked at developing criminal law in close connection with other criminal sciences, such as criminology and criminal policy. He considers that the measures of criminal policy should be effective, just and humane. Repression and deterrence should not be the only goals.

“A rational and humane criminal policy is one that considers the impact of the system on all parties, including the repercussions for the perpetrators,” Lahti says. “Punishments reflect the cultural state of society. Nordic countries are affluent societies, where the common thinking holds that we can afford to be humane also towards criminals, who are often themselves from deprived circumstances, especially those who commit the most typical crimes. According to this approach, the idea is that social policy is the best form of criminal policy, and that prison sentences should be the last resort. Measures against organised and professional crime should be different. At the very least it can be viewed as a pragmatic approach given its cost-effectiveness.”

Prison sentences passed in the Nordic countries are comparatively short, and for example in Finland, the number of prisoners per capita is relatively low. This is also due to the low amount of crime when compared to international figures. However, the crime statistics are made all the sadder by the high incidence of violent crime, which is linked to alcohol abuse: most violent crimes are committed against someone that the perpetrator knows, while intoxicated.

Criminal law is strongly governed by national sovereignty. Finland’s official stance towards the longstanding efforts by the EU to harmonise criminal law has been cautious, and according to Lahti, this cautiousness is linked with the fear of losing values that we hold dear.

“The Legal Affairs Committee of the Finnish Parliament has emphasised that criminal policy should be developed on the basis of scientific knowledge, even at EU level, and that instead of severe punishments, the focus should be on humaneness and crime prevention. It is now paramount that the Nordic countries co-operate on this matter, so that the fundamental values of humaneness and rationality would also carry through into the EU.”

Transparency adds credibility

International criminal courts have been established to deal with serious violations against humanitarian law, as ad hoc tribunals in the 1990s for such violations committed in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and as a permanent court in 2002. Raimo Lahti has recently been elected on the decision of the UN Security Council as ad litem judge for the International Criminal tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), located in The Hague, Netherlands. An ad litem judge can be appointed to serve in the trial chambers for one or more trials, the purpose being to alleviate the workload of the permanent judges and to represent a wider variety of legal systems.

The ICTY has played a significant role in developing the principle of international criminal law, both in terms of constituent elements of international crimes and of the fundamentals of international criminal responsibility. The decisions are, in fact, provided with broad reasons for judgement, as they are expected to strongly direct the development of law.

“In serious violations against hum-anitarian law, such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, dealing with the past is vital for restoring peace. The judgements have a significant role also with respect to the future: it is hoped that punishments will contribute to the prevention of such crimes. The ICTY has met with criticism particularly for the long processing times, a case in point being Slobodan Milosevic, who died before the case was completed. We must remember, however, that such charges have to be processed with the utmost thoroughness, so that the court decision can fulfil the criteria of fairness and legitimacy,” Lahti says. “Another aspect that improves a court’s credibility is transparency. The cases can be followed in real time over the Internet, and in Serbia, the Milosevic trial was widely watched. I think publicity is very important to securing fair trials.”

Lahti does not know yet which case he will participate in. The ICTY appointment means spending one year in The Hague. “The practice of ad hoc tribunals hascreated a good foundation for a permanent international criminal court and nationals courts in situations when they are having to deal with similar international crimes. There is a criminal investigation that has only recently commenced in Finland concerning a Rwandan person who is seeking refugee status in Finland and who is suspected of having participated in genocide,” Lahti points out.

Arja-Leena Paavolainen

Top