5 March 2014
The Human Rights Council this afternoon held a high-level panel discussion on the question of the death penalty to exchange views on advances, best practices and challenges relating to the abolition of the death penalty and to the introduction of a moratorium on executions.
The discussion included a video message from Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations Secretary-General, and a statement by Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In his video message, Secretary-General Ban noted that the trend against capital punishment was getting stronger everywhere, and regretted that there remained too many cases of people being put to death in hasty circumstances that failed to adhere to international standards regarding due process. The death penalty was unjust and incompatible with fundamental human rights and States must do their utmost to put a final stop to this cruel and inhumane practice, including through the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Ms. Pillay joined the Secretary-General in urging all States that still had the death penalty to move swiftly towards abolition and deeply deplored the fact that approximately 20 States still executed people, often in direct violation of international human rights standards. The death penalty was not reconcilable with human rights, put at risk the right to freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and there was no evidence that it had a deterrent effect. It was vitally important to hold national debates on the death penalty and to provide the public with balanced and accurate information.
Nicolas Niemtchinow, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva, who moderated the discussion, said capital punishment was not just about justice, but the failure of justice. It would always be a human rights violation. Capital punishment was a particularly complex issue; it was a long term struggle, but was a universal cause and nothing would stand in its way. It was an ambitious goal to abolish the death penalty but a fair one, and one that could be achieved.
Baudelaire Ndong Ella, President of the Human Rights Council, introducing the high-level panel discussion, said that it resulted from a resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in March 2013 which recognised the importance for States to hold national debates on the question of the death penalty and convened this meeting.
Participating in today’s panel discussion were Valentin Djenontin-Agossou, Minister of Justice and Human Rights of Benin; Khadija Rouissi, Vice-President of the National Parliament of Morocco and the Coordinator of the Network of Moroccan Parliamentarians against the death penalty; Kirk Bloodsworth, Director of Advocacy, Witness to Innocence United States; and Asma Jahangir, Commissioner, International Commission against the death penalty and a former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions.
Mr. Djenontin-Agossou invited States to work towards abolition, noting that the death penalty did not constitute a tangible solution to eradicate criminality, was not compatible with the right to life, and posed unacceptable risks of judicial errors.
Ms. Rouissi said Islam was not a fundamentalist religion and there was a need to move beyond dogmatism and tribal attitudes in benefit of reason and equity. The death penalty was the most institutionalised attack on the right to life and abolition thus constituted a prelude to any serious penal reform.
Mr. Bloodsworth said he was the first person in the United States to be exonerated from a capital conviction in the United States through DNA testing, after spending two years on death row. He said that the capital punishment system of the United States was ineffective and wrong. If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone in this world.
Ms. Jahangir said Asia presented a challenge to the death penalty abolitionist movement as the vast majority of executions were carried out there. She called on all to pool efforts internationally and within Asia to make it a death penalty-free continent. More Asian countries should adopt a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty and should strengthen their criminal legal system.
In the ensuing discussion, many speakers said that the death penalty was an affront to human dignity and opposed its use in any circumstances. It violated the right to life and undermined human dignity and therefore building a society free from the death penalty should be at the core of all actions. A number of delegations insisted that there was no evidence in support of the effectiveness of the death penalty in preventing crime and shared concerns regarding its irreversibility. Establishing a moratorium could only be a first step because the guarantee that executions would not resume was important.
Other speakers stressed that the question of capital punishment was a sensitive issue because of different cultural and intellectual frameworks. States had the sovereign and inalienable right to choose their legal systems without interference from other countries, as long as the application of the death penalty complied with the relevant international instruments. The appeals to abolish the death penalty should not forget the rights of victims and national security considerations.
Speaking in the discussion were the following Member States: Namibia, Brazil (on behalf of the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries), Sudan, Mongolia, Sierra Leone, Saudi Arabia, Singapore (on behalf of a group of 26 like-minded countries), Switzerland (on behalf of a group of 44 countries), Kuwait (on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council), European Union, Ireland, New Zealand, Slovenia, Belgium, Council of Europe, Indonesia, Morocco, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico, Austria, Australia, Spain, Rwanda, China, France and Egypt.
The following non-governmental organizations also spoke: Penal Reform International, Amnesty International, International Harm Reduction Association, International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and Verein Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik.
The Human Rights Council will next meet on Thursday, 6 March at 10 a.m. to conclude its High-level Segment. It will then hold its general segment, followed by an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights on her annual report.
BAUDELAIRE NDONG ELLA, President of the Human Rights Council, introducing the high-level panel discussion, explained that this meeting resulted from a resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in March 2013. The resolution recognised the importance for States to hold national debates on the question of the death penalty and convened this high-level meeting to exchange views on progress made and obstacles regarding the abolition of the death penalty and the implementation of a moratorium on executions.
BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said in a video message that since the General Assembly’s landmark call for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty in 2007, the trend against capital punishment had become stronger. Its influence was felt in every region and across all legal systems, traditions and religions. Around 160 countries had either abolished the death penalty or no longer practiced it. The taking of life was too irreversible for one human being to inflict it on another. Even in countries that did allow for capital punishment, there remained too many cases of people being put to death despite legitimate questions about their guilt, or in hasty circumstances that failed to adhere to international standards regarding due process.
The international community had to continue to argue strongly that the death penalty was unjust and incompatible with fundamental human rights. The Secretary-General called on States that had not yet done so to ratify the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. He finally hoped to see many instruments of ratification at the Protocol’s twenty-fifth anniversary at the treaty event in New York later this year. States must do their utmost to put a final stop to this cruel and inhumane practice.
NAVI PILLAY, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights she opposed the death penalty in all circumstances and joined the Secretary-General in urging all States that still had that penalty to move swiftly towards abolition. Currently around 160 countries in the world had abolished, introduced moratorium or did not practice the death penalty. While welcoming these developments, the High Commissioner deeply deplored the fact that approximately 20 States still executed people, often in direct violation of international human rights standards. Why should there be an aim for universal abolition? Firstly, the death penalty was not reconcilable with human rights, starting with the right to life. Another right at risk was the right to freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. States that had imposed a moratorium on capital punishment or abolition had frequently done so as they realised that it was cruel, inhuman or degrading either per se or as applied. Experience showed that in practice, scrupulous adherence to the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment when carrying out death sentences was never guaranteed.
The second reason for abolition was the finality of the death penalty. Even the most developed, well-functioning and robust legal systems and those with multiple judicial safeguards had put to death individuals who subsequently and in many instances were proven to be innocent. The third strong reason for abolition related to lack of merit of the common assertion that the death penalty had a deterrent effect. There was no evidence that the death penalty deterred crime any more than other forms of punishment. Abolishing the death penalty was a long and often painful process and rarely came to closure before a period of difficult, even acrimonious, national debate. To make sure that such debates were effective, transparent and fully reflective of the collective will, it was vitally important to provide the public with balanced information and accurate statistics that covered all aspects of the argument on criminality, and describe all the various effective ways to combat it, short of the death sentence. All States that still retained the death penalty should as a first step introduce a moratorium on it. The Council was fervently urged to continue discussing and advancing the universal abolition of the death penalty, and engage States and other stakeholders in dialogue on the relevant issues. Abolition of the death penalty would undoubtedly enhance the rights of all humankind, starting with the most sacred right of all, the right to life.
NICOLAS NIEMTCHINOW, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva, Moderator, said that it was known that capital punishment was a human rights issue and he was happy to see it once again on the Council’s agenda. It was not just about justice, but the failure of justice. Human justice could not be justice if it slaughtered. Capital punishment was not simply a challenge for criminal policy. It was and always would be a human rights violation. This was a particularly complex issue. It was a long term struggle, but was a universal cause and nothing would stand in its way. If specifics were looked at, there was real growing awareness about the issue throughout continents and efforts had to be doubled to win this fight. It was an ambitious goal to abolish the death penalty but a fair one, and one that could be achieved.
Statements by the Panellists
VALENTIN DJENONTIN-AGOSSOU, Minister of Justice and Human Rights of Benin, recalled that every human being had the inherent right to life and none should be deprived of this right. Benin had ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as other relevant instruments such as on the rights of the child and against torture; and its Constitution established that the human being was sacred. Mr. Djenontin-Agossou recalled the international context on the death penalty, noting that the General Assembly had adopted a number of resolutions calling for a moratorium on the execution of death sentences. In November 2008 the African Commission for Human Rights had adopted a resolution reminding States parties to the African Charter of Human Rights to uphold this moratorium. In August 2011, the National Assembly of Benin overwhelmingly voted in favour of the abolition. Mr. Djenontin-Agossou invited States to work towards abolition, noting that the death penalty did not constitute a tangible solution to eradicate criminality, was not compatible with the right to life, and posed unacceptable risks of judicial errors.
KHADIJA ROUISSI, Vice-President of the Parliament of Morocco, said that in the Middle East and North Africa region only five countries out of 19 had a de facto moratorium, which meant that there were people who continued to face the death penalty, and the region had the highest level of execution per capita. In Morocco, since 1993, the death penalty was not practiced and a fairness and reconciliation body had been established to shed light on human rights violations that occurred in recent years. The Constitution adopted in 2011 enshrined the right to life and gave an important place to human rights. A network of parliamentarians against the death penalty were putting forward legislative proposals towards abolition and would continue to work towards the adoption of the second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and of the Rome Statue. Ms. Rouissi stressed that Islam was not a fundamentalist religion, noting the need to move beyond dogmatism and tribal attitudes in benefit of reason and equity. The death penalty was the most institutionalised attack on the right to life and abolition thus constituted a prelude to any serious penal reform.
KIRK BLOODSWORTH, Director of Advocacy, Witness to Innocence, said that the capital punishment system of the United States was ineffective and wrong, and did not work, and he knew this first hand. Mr. Bloodsworth said he was the first person in the United States to be exonerated from a capital conviction through DNA testing. He had spent 8 years, 10 months and 19 days in prison, including two years on death row, for a crime he had not committed. He had been accused of the killing of a 9-year old little girl. Everybody in the State of Maryland believed his guilt. Five persons had positively identified him. Two juries had said they had the right man. In the end, every single one of them was dead wrong. In the last 20 years he had fought the State, and the death penalty was abolished last year. It should and could happen. The death penalty did not suit this world. There was enough death, pain and suffering in every section of the planet. If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone in this world. The Council, the people of the world, were asked not let this happen anymore.
ASMA JAHANGIR, Commissioner, International Commission against the Death Penalty, said that Asia presented a challenge to the death penalty abolitionist movement, which in recent years had witnessed a majority of countries ceasing the practice of capital punishment. The vast majority of executions were carried out in Asia and thousands were under sentence of death, but there were glimmers of hope. Countries like Cambodia, the Philippines, Bhutan, Nepal and Timor-Leste had abolished the death penalty for all crimes in Asia. Mongolia, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Lao Democratic People’s Republic, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives had not carried out executions for several years. But the situation of the death penalty in the Asia region remained challenging and of concern. There was a need to pool all efforts internationally and within Asia to make it a death penalty free continent. A step forward would be to encourage more countries in Asia to adopt a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty and alongside it to strengthen their criminal legal system which was capable of addressing impunity rather than through imposition of death.
Namibia said the death penalty violated the right to life which was the basis of all rights and undermined human dignity which was inherent to all human beings, and asked the panellists about the possibilities of outlawing the death penalty internationally. The abolition of the death penalty contributed to progressive strengthening of human rights everywhere, said Brazil (on behalf of Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries), and stressed that building a society free from the death penalty should be at the core of all actions. In Sudan the death penalty could only be imposed for the most serious crimes and Sudan stressed that the implementation of human rights principles must take into consideration cultural and societal characteristics of the people for them to be truly universal.
Mongolia said it had declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2010, followed by the adhesion to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Mongolia was currently working on amendments to abolish the death penalty both in law and practice. Sierra Leone was committed to addressing the question of the death penalty and had organised a conference in Freetown on this issue. There had been a moratorium in Sierra Leone since 1998. Abolition was the final goal, and would be addressed in the current review of the Constitution. Saudi Arabia said that Sharia Law guaranteed justice and rights for all, including the right to life. The appeals to abolish the death penalty should not forget the rights of victims. The death penalty was a matter to be dealt with by each country in accordance with domestic legislation.
Singapore, speaking on behalf of a group of 26 like-minded countries, said that the death penalty had to be viewed though a broader perspective and weighed against the rights of the victims and national security. Every State had the sovereign and inalienable right to choose its own legal system without interference from foreign countries. Switzerland, speaking on behalf of a group of 44 countries, said they were convinced that the death penalty was an affront to human dignity and opposed its use in any circumstances. The Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights had acted as a catalyst for this regional trend. Capital punishment was abolished as a result of debates and exchanges of ideas and resulted from slow changes of mentalities.
Kuwait, speaking on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council, said that the question of capital punishment was a sensitive issue since countries had different opinions because of cultural and intellectual frameworks and because of the absence of international agreement on the issue. As long as the application of the death penalty complied with the relevant international instruments, this question was inherent to States’ rights to choose their criminal law and national sovereignty. The European Union reiterated that there was no evidence in support of the death penalty’s effectiveness in preventing crime and expressed concerns about countries that had resumed executions or that were executing large numbers of prisoners and reiterated support for abolition. Ireland said a de facto moratorium had been in place since 1954 and stressed the view that capital punishment was not needed, reiterating its support for the establishment of a moratorium and abolition. Ireland asked panellists how to best achieve this. New Zealand opposed the use of death penalty in all cases and under all circumstances, sharing a number of the concerns of the panellists, among others, concerning its negative effects and irreversibility.
Penal Reform International said that conditions of death row were inhuman and degrading and expressed concerns about the conditions often experienced by prisoners on death row. Conditions should be based on individual risk assessments, commuting of sentences before the time of abolition and ensuring compliance with international standards.Amnesty International referred to some recent developments towards abolition and highlighted the potential value of establishing a moratorium, noting that this could only be a first step; guarantees that executions would not be resumed were also important. International Harm Reduction Association highlighted human rights violations associated with drug enforcement operations and noted that United Nations’ assistance has reportedly contributed to the arrest and sentencing to death of drug traffickers and, despite calls for attention, no responses had been undertaken. International Harm Reduction Association called for funding to be redirected and freezing financial support pending investigation.
KIRK BLOODSWORTH, Director of Advocacy of Witness to Innocence, said that it did not hurt a country not to have the death penalty. What did hurt a country was the killing of innocents. Children could not be dealt with like adults, and juvenile death penalty was a barbaric practice. States in America that still used the death penalty were the States with the most criminality.
KHADIJA ROUISSI, Vice-President of the National Parliament of Morocco, said that the international community had a responsibility to stop this form of torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment. The abolition of slavery, when it happened, was a really hard decision as well. But today no one would think about opposing it. Justifying the use of the death penalty by religious belief was based on misinterpretations of religions and was wrong.
ASMA JAHANGIR, Commissioner, International Commission against the Death Penalty, said better campaigns were needed, with more testimonies of people who had suffered, families that had suffered, and of people that had witnessed how innocent people had been put to the gallows. Contradictions also had to be pointed out. It was important to understand that it was justice that they were talking about rather than revenge. There were other forms of punishment other than death that could be given, and justice would be secured. The myths had to be looked at. Some crimes that carried the death penalty were no longer considered crimes now. There was a debate on whether in situations of terrorism the death penalty should be imposed. In a situation of heated atmosphere, it was far more dangerous to have the extreme punishment of the death penalty.
VALENTIN DJENONTIN-AGOSSOU, Minister of Justice and Human Rights of Benin, said concerning what should be done at the national level to condemn the death penalty as illegal, the international community had to intensify the campaign to sensitize everyone at every level, to sensitize all actors, so that countries could vote on a universal moratorium. When that vote was accomplished, countries could move on to de facto abolition of the death penalty and enshrine it in law. Mr. Djenontin-Agossou noted that, in Benin, commuting the death penalty to life imprisonment was taking place.
Slovenia said it opposed the death penalty under any circumstances; this practice had no positive impact on reducing criminality. Slovenia regretted that juvenile executions, or executions carried out inhumanly, still occurred. Civil society and regional organizations played an important role in promoting the abolition of the death penalty. Belgium said that the global trend toward abolition was undeniable. The establishment of a moratorium was a first step that should lead to the full abolition de jure. Belgium’s last execution during peace time occurred in the nineteenth century. The Council of Europe called on all countries to put an end to the death penalty. Europe was a death penalty free area, and only one Council of Europe Member State had not abolished the death penalty in law. Vigilance was nevertheless required, since some political parties even in Europe had put the restoration of the death penalty on their programmes. Indonesia believed that this issue had to be approached carefully and all should avoid naming and shaming. There were ongoing active debates in Indonesia on the use of the death penalty. Indonesia made sure that strong guarantees were attached to the use of the death penalty, in accordance with international law.
Morocco said it was a de facto abolitionist country and had engaged a fruitful national dialogue on whether or not to maintain this sentence in domestic legislation. Morocco had adopted a transparency policy regarding the death penalty. Finally, Morocco was committed to continue the debates on this issue. Italy emphasised the deep link between the death penalty and human rights. Public opinion unfortunately was too often deprived of objective and transparent information on the issue and the effects of capital punishment. The State did not need to take lives in order to defend itself. Switzerland believed that the death penalty could be completely abolished by the year 2025. How could countries lacking political courage abolish the death penalty? Maintaining the death penalty did not reduce the criminality rates, Switzerland said. Finally, the death penalty was not compatible with human rights, and too often targeted the most vulnerable groups of a society.
France said that universal abolition of the death penalty was one of France’s main priorities in the area of human rights. Unfortunately, some setbacks had been seen, with moratoria that had been in place being broken. Mexico reiterated its rejection of the imposition of the death penalty which was still common practice in many parts of the world, in violation of the most important human right of all, the right to life, and was very concerned about information of the use of unregulated substances in the formulae of lethal injections. Austria said that it wanted the death penalty abolished worldwide and called for a global moratorium on executions. The margin of error in the application of the death penalty was too big and there was no compelling evidence that executions were deterrents. Australia welcomed developments noted in the Secretary-General’s recent report, but was concerned that some States had reintroduced the death penalty, or resumed executions, or expanded the range of categories crimes to which the death penalty could apply.
Egypt said that it was of the view that seeking to produce positive results on the death penalty required repositioning of the debate and placing it on its appropriate platform, and that it remained in the scope of criminal justice. China said that there was no international consensus on the death penalty. The retention of the death penalty in China was a prudent choice made in accordance with international conventions and the people’s demand for justice, and was applied with a policy of strict control of application. Rwandasaid that the abolition of the death penalty in Rwanda was not easy. However, the decision had not been regretted and it had been a step forward in the process of reconciliation in Rwanda. Spain said that a sentence to death led all to think about many human rights issues. Abolishing the death penalty was a challenge, not an insurmountable one, but one that could be overcome through constructive debate such as this one.
International Federation of Human Rights Leagues welcomed the continued global trend towards the abolition of the death penalty. However many challenges remained and a lack of data was a serious impediment to serious debate. Verein Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik was concerned about the increasing executions in Iran, where children watched public executions alongside adults and in many proceedings the rule of law was infringed. International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination noted that of the use of the death penalty had significantly decreased. However some countries still favoured the counter-trend and it was crucial that the international community continue to undertake all possible efforts to protect the inherent right to life, to which there was no derogation.
KIRK BLOODSWORTH, Director of Advocacy, Witness to Innocence, said that when this happened to him, he realised that it could happen to everyone. The death penalty had to be abolished, in the name of all those who had been wrongly executed.
KHADIJA ROUISSI, Vice-President of the National Parliament of Morocco, welcomed that Senegal had abolished the death penalty, and called on all other Muslim countries to do so. It was impossible to have full guarantees in the administration of justice to ensure that nobody be wrongly sentenced.
ASMA JAHANGIR, Commissioner, International Commission against the death penalty and a former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, said that this dialogue must be continued because there was a gap in opinions of people; some saw it as a human rights problem and others as a criminal justice problem. Transparency was very important and there were countries where it was unknown how many were executed and for which crimes. It was important that States were convinced about the abolition of the death penalty and had the political will to abolish it, before convincing political parties, civil society and the public. What needed to be done immediately was to stop the execution of children.
VALENTIN DJENONTIN-AGOSSOU, Minister of Justice and Human Rights of Benin, thought that positive changes would be seen in the acts of Parliaments and it was important that they worked hand-in-hand with governments and members of civil society in abolishing the death penalty.
NICOLAS NIEMTCHINOW, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office at Geneva, Moderator, in concluding remarks thanked the panellists for their thought-provoking statements, in this serene dialogue with constructive and active contributions. Lessons learned included that the path to the abolition of the death penalty was a long but ongoing one, and universal abolition was more than ever within reach. The specific ways of going about it would vary. What was clear was that no barrier was truly insurmountable, including public opinion. A transparent debate between States was needed, in close conjunction with civil society.
BAUDELAIRE NDONG ELLA, President of the Human Rights Council, thanked the moderator, panel members and all participants for their contributions to the debate. The Council would meet tomorrow morning at 10 a.m., to continue the High-level Segment, followed by the general segment, and an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner.