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Opening statement by the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Mr. Ivan Šimonović, at the OHCHR/African Union Global Panel: “Moving away from the death penalty – Lessons from the African experience”, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 11 November 2015

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to extend a warm welcome to all of you. As a former Law School professor and former Minister of Justice – and– I am very glad to see so many legal experts, attorney generals and chief justices in the room.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is very pleased to be a co-organizer of this event with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Political Department of the African Union Commission.

The United Nations, with the Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in the lead, fully supports, the efforts of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to adopt a draft additional protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on abolition of the death penalty in Africa. I understand that it is not going to be easy, but moving away from the death penalty never is.

Ladies and Gentlemen, There is no right more sacred than the right to life. It is interesting to note that in the early 1960s, when drafting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, its authors were already paving the way for the move in international law towards the abolition of the death penalty.

The last paragraph of article 6 of the ICCPR provides that “nothing in this article shall be invoked to delay or prevent the abolition of capital punishment in any State party to the Covenant”. This move, which materialized in 1989 through the adoption of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on the Civil and Political Rights, is also reflected in a number of regional instruments supporting the abolition of the death penalty.

During the last few decades, an increasingly large number of Member States from all regions have acknowledged that the death penalty undermines human dignity, and that its abolition, or at least a moratorium on its use, contributes to the enhancement and progressive development of human rights.

Seven decades ago, only 14 countries had abolished the death penalty. Today more than 160 have either abolished it or no longer practice it.

The momentum continues to build. In the past 12 months, Bangladesh, Fiji, Madagascar, Suriname, and the state of Nebraska in the United States have decided to abolish executions. Burkina Faso and the Republic of Korea have submitted new abolition laws to parliament. Togo has ratified the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which aims to abolish the death penalty. China has removed the death penalty for several categories of crimes. And authorities in Afghanistan, Malaysia, Thailand and the United States have announced reviews of the fairness and accuracy of the processes that convict and execute people.

But there is still a long way to go. Although the number of executions declined by 22 per cent in 2014, there was a 28 per cent increase in the number of people condemned to death.

I am particularly concerned where States with long-standing de facto moratoriums have resumed executions, or are considering reintroducing the death penalty.

A number of countries imposed or implemented death sentences in response to real or perceived threats posed by terrorism or crime in general. Today, 86 Member States apply the death penalty to acts of ‘terrorism’, though only 39 countries actually execute for such offences.

Additionally, countries have also similarly responded to the spread of drug trafficking by insisting on the retention of or reintroducing the death penalty. It should be noted that in 1979, 10 countries had the death penalty for drug trafficking. In 1985 that number had risen to 22 countries. By 2013 it was 33 countries.

A few States continue to use the death penalty for drug related crimes, with the argument that this is needed for deterrence purposes. However, there is no reliable evidence that the death penalty deters any crime, including terrorism or drug-related offences. While the need to tackle drug-related offences has to be acknowledged, the focus of crime prevention should be on strengthening the justice system and making it more effective. In practice, the death penalty is too often applied to the poor and marginalized foot soldiers, and not the power organizers of the drug business.

Ladies and Gentlemen, A large number of retentionist States justify the death penalty on the grounds that it is demanded by a large majority of the population. Of course, public opinion cannot be ignored, but a country concerned about human rights should not merely accept opinion polls as a reason for applying or retaining the death penalty – especially when this may be based on misconceptions about its deterring effect.

Moving away from the death penalty requires leadership. In most countries, both moratorium and abolition received majority support only a couple of years after being practiced.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Last December, at the United Nations General Assembly, 27 African countries joined 90 others from around the world in voting in favour of a resolution calling for a progressive end to the use of the death penalty. It is a clear illustration that the African continent is a key player in this debate, and for us at the United Nations, a major partner. We welcome the commitment of the African Union on this issue. The United Nations stand ready to assist.

In fact, many countries in Africa have taken an abolitionist stance. However, as Africa makes major strides away from the death penalty, some worrying developments cloud the horizon: the impact of the refugee and migration crisis including in the Mediterranean and the role of smugglers and trafficking networks, continued imposition of mandatory death sentences for some crimes in a handful of countries, the lack of fair trial guarantees, and in recent months the resurgence in certain countries of the death penalty in contexts marked by a significant deterioration of the security climate. All these challenges are not limited to Africa. We see similar trends across the world.

These developments point to the need for a stronger advocacy against the use of the death penalty. Across Africa, much like on the global stage, the direction is now clear, but the mobilisation must continue.

The continent should follow on the footsteps of Nelson Mandela, who was instrumental in moving his country away from the death penalty. First by lobbying former President FW De Klerk for a moratorium on executions as soon as he came out of prison in 1990, then encouraged the constitutional court to rule against its continued use (1995). “The death penalty is a barbaric act,” he famously said.

In that regard, I welcome the efforts taken by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to advocate for moving away from the death penalty, including through the various resolutions adopted, since as early as 1999, as well the progressive steps taken towards the adoption of a regional legal instrument on its abolition. Following last year’s adoption of the Cotonou Declaration by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, calling for an end to the death penalty on the African Continent, a protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the abolition of the death penalty has been drafted. This is a very welcome development, in line with the global trend.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Allow me to conclude by expressing my gratitude to you and our distinguished panelists who will share their experiences with us today on moving away from the death penalty.

I would also like to use this opportunity to draw your attention to the new, expanded edition of our publication on “Moving away from the death penalty, which was launched at the United Nations in New York just last week with the Secretary-General as a key-note speaker. Its key message is, as the Secretary-general has put it, “the death penalty has no place in the 21st century.”

This book is unique because of its breath and scope. It provides arguments and analysis, reviews trends and development from around the world, on the issue of the death penalty. Contributors come from Africa, from Europe, from America, and from Asia. They include activists such as Sister Helen Prejean who some know from the movie Dead Man Walking, victims of wrongful convictions, academics, and world leaders such as the President of Benin, or the former President of Tunisia.

I hope you will find it useful food for thought and I wish that we shall have a vivid and fruitful discussion today.

Thank you.