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"Hidden" victims: the children of parents on death row

“My name is Tania. I was born in prison… and was delivered to my father the same day. Both my parents were political activists. In March 1984, when I was only one year old, the body of my 28 year old mother was delivered to our family and my father was sent into exile three days later. I have never experienced family life and as a young woman do not know what having a mother means… I personally urge all countries that have not yet ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to do so and I wish a day where no parents are executed and no child is left without the support of parents. (Tania told her story at the Human Rights Council discussion on the human rights of children of parents sentenced to death or who have been executed, September 2013)

There are few studies available which describe the experience of children whose parents have been sentenced to death or who have had one or both parents executed. From the available information, however, it is clear that children who have lost parents because of lengthy prison sentences or executions suffer deep and lasting grief and trauma. The loss can be catastrophic because these children are often left without support of any kind: without a home, carers, or an education. These children and no one knows how many there are, frequently face humiliation and discrimination within their communities.

The Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Flavia Pansieri in an address to the Human Rights Council’s panel discussion on the human rights of children of parents sentenced to death or executed, drew attention to the growing trend towards abolition of the death penalty. “More than 150 of 193 Member States of the United Nations have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it, she said.

However, Pansieri said those States that continue to use the death penalty “need to consider how to address the consequences of its use on society at large, in particular on families of individuals sentenced to death or executed.”

A caseworker with the organisation “morning tears” which works in a number of countries with the children of parents who have been sentenced to death or to long prison terms describes the experience of the children in her care in a project in Zhengyhou, the capital of Henan Province in China. “Usually nobody wants them, even families and relatives – nobody really wants them and most of them come from poor families. Usually the kids who come here stay for at least one year but in plenty of cases, they remain for ten years or more.”

Marta Santos Pais, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, in remarks read on her behalf to the Council said, “The sentencing of a parent to the death penalty compromises the enjoyment of a wide spectrum of children’s rights. It is critical that the situation of children of parents facing the death penalty get the urgent attention and action required.”

The moderator of the discussion, Bertrand de Crombrugghe, Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations in Geneva, called for a ‘human rights approach” and said “children should not have to pay for what their parents have done.” States, he said, should take responsibility for the unintended consequences of their criminal justice systems.

The number of children whose parents face the death penalty is unknown, according to Associate Professor Sandra Jones from Rowan University but she said their experiences are ‘agonising’. These children feel terribly alone, she said, they tend to isolate themselves and suffer from internalised shame. Often these children feel they have to defend the parent in prison, and they live in fear waiting to hear they have been killed. These children typically have to deal with many psychological issues – depression, anxiety, behavioural problems and aggression, Jones said. Many of them go on to become offenders.

Wells for Hope, an NGO based in Uganda, assists children with a parent in prison by providing education and general welfare. According to Francis Ssuubi, the Executive Director of the organisation, although the last execution in Uganda was carried out in 1999, 408 people remain on death row. The children of death row inmates remain invisible, he said, and some people continue to believe the parent’s guilt should be shared with their children.

Ssuubi called on States to consider child-friendly criminal justice systems which allow contact between children and their parents in prison.

Nisreen Zerikat, from the National Human Rights Centre of Jordan, said national human rights institution can play an effective role in protecting the human rights of children of death row prisoners, in particular by facilitating visits to prisons.

Professor Jorge Cardona from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasized that the best interests of the child have to be taken into account when a parent receives a death sentence. States which are parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child are legally obliged to make this assessment each time a decision concerning a child is taken, he said.

The plight of children who have parents on death row or whose parents have been executed is also addressed in the latest report from the UN Secretary General on the question of the death penalty. There is an urgent need, the report says, “to examine the effects of the capital punishment system in its entirety, including the social, economic and psychological impact on the children of those executed or under death sentence.”

On 10 October, World Day Against the Death Penalty, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Christof Heyns and the Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Ménedez have called on the international community to intensify global efforts to move States away from the death penalty for good.

“There are still a number of States where people continue to be executed in contravention of the standards imposed by international law,” the experts said, while expressing deep concern about the recent resumption of executions in a number of States, after long periods of observance of moratoriums.

10 October 2013

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