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Growing global trend calling for an end to capital punishment

In 2007, the call by the General Assembly for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty launched a trend for the abolition of the capital punishment. Today, some 160 countries have abolished the death penalty or no longer practice it.

“In countries that do allow for capital punishment, there remain too many cases of people being put to death despite legitimate questions about their guilt, or in hasty circumstances that fail to adhere to international standards regarding due process,” said the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon.

Ban Ki-Moon was speaking via video message during a high-level panel at the Human Rights Council in Geneva where experts discussed the advances and remaining challenges for the abolition of the death penalty.

“We must continue to argue that the death penalty is unjust and incompatible with fundamental human rights,” he added.

The UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay, detailed some of these rights including the right to life, the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the right to equality and non-discrimination.

“The decision whether to sentence a convict to death or to lesser punishment is often arbitrary, disproportionate and devoid of predictable rational criteria,” she said. “In this “judicial lottery”, the odds are often stacked against the poor, against minorities and other common targets of discrimination.”

“I urge all States that still retain the death penalty as a first step to introduce a moratorium on it.  As they do so, they should also go beyond simply ceasing executions,” she said further. “They should aim for a suspension of capital punishment for all who might be, or have been, sentenced to it. Prosecutors should no longer seek the death penalty, and judges should not impose it. This could be done, for example, through a directive from the highest judicial body.”

Nicolas Niemtchinow, Permanent Representative of France and moderator of the discussion, stressed that the death penalty embodied the failure of justice and that the fact that the majority of UN Member States were in favour of the establishment of a moratorium on executions showed great progress for humanity.

“People’s growing awareness is visible on all continents and it is not a question of civilization, culture or political regime,” he said.

The Minister of Justice  and Human Rights of Benin, Valentin Djenontin-Agossou, referred to the debate which took place at the National Assembly of Benin on whether capital punishment should be upheld or abolished, following the resolution on a moratorium adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. He highlighted the National Assembly’s overwhelming vote in favor of abolition in 2011.

“The death penalty is an absolute denial of human dignity and value. The final and cruel nature of that punishment makes it incompatible with the respect for the right to life, and constitutes an inappropriate and unacceptable response to violent crime,” the minister said. “Moreover, the risk of judicial error still exists while the death penalty is a punishment with irreversible consequences.”

Khadija Rouissy, Vice-President of the National Parliament of Morocco, said that only five countries out of the nineteen that constitute the Middle East and North Africa Region had instituted a de facto moratorium, and that the region had the highest rate of executions per capita.

The death penalty has not been practiced since 1993 in Morocco, and a fairness and reconciliation body was established to shed light on the human rights violations that occurred in recent years. A network of parliamentarians against the death penalty were putting forward legislative proposals towards the abolition, and would continue to work towards the adoption of the second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Kirk Bloodsworth, Director of Advocacy at Witness to Innocence, gave a moving testimony of his own experience of the capital punishment system of the United States. Bloodsworth was the first person in that country to be exonerated from a death penalty conviction through DNA testing, after spending almost nine years in prison for the murder and rape of a nine year old girl he always said he did not commit. Bloodsworth was arrested because the police believed he matched eyewitnesses’ identification.

“Eyewitness misidentification is widely recognized as one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in the United States,” he said. “Since 1989, DNA evidence has been used to exonerate over 300 individuals and approximately 74 percent of these cases involved inaccurate or faulty eyewitness identification… It is important to remember that had evidence for DNA testing not been available, I would still be in prison today.”

It took 10 years for the little girl’s true killer, Kimberley Shay Ruffner, to be identified because his DNA matched a record in the State of Maryland’s database. “As fate would have it, Ruffner had been sleeping in the cell below mine in the Maryland Penitentiary all these years. We had lifted weights together. I gave him library books,” Bloodsworth said. “He never said a word.”

Since his release from prison, Kirk Bloodsworth and his colleagues have fought for wrongfully convicted people and lobbied for reforms of the United States criminal justice system. Their efforts led to the adoption of the 2003 Innocence Protection Act which includes a requirement on Post-Conviction DNA Testing and ensures the availability of federal funds to states for DNA testing for death row prisoners who claim innocence. Further, Maryland became the 18th American state to repeal the death penaltybecause of their advocacy.

Asma Jahangir, Commissioner at the International Commission against the Death Penalty, noted that Asia still presented a challenge although an increasing number of countries in the region had ceased practicing the capital punishment.

Cambodia, the Philippines, Bhutan, Nepal and Timor-Leste had abolished the death penalty for all crimes.  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. She said however, that a number of countries retained the death penalty in their law and applied it, and indicated that ten Asian countries had carried out executions in 2013.

“It is my sincere hope to see many instruments of ratification as we mark the Protocol’s 25th anniversary at the treaty event in New York later this year,” he added.

27 March 2014

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