Header image for news printout

Death penalty, if retained, only permissible for ‘most serious crimes’ – UN rapporteur on arbitrary executions

NEW YORK (25 October 2012) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, today reminded States of the restrictions relating to the imposition of the death penalty. For those States that retain the death penalty, international law imposes strict requirements that must be met for it not to be regarded as unlawful. For those States that have abolished it, he emphasised the importance of not assisting any retentionist State in its use of the death penalty, whether it be lawful or unlawful.

“The right to life remains the right on which all others depend and requires the highest level of protection,” Mr. Heyns said at the presentation of his annual report* to the UN General Assembly. “In a shrinking group of States people continue to be executed in contravention of the standards imposed by international law.”

“International human rights law places stringent constraints on the conditions under which the right to life may be infringed, either extrajudicially or judicially,” the human rights expert said.

In his report, the Special Rapporteur considers issues relating to the imposition of the death penalty including the problem of error and the use of military tribunals in the context of fair trial requirements. He concludes that the death penalty may be imposed only for the most serious crimes, namely those involving intentional killing, and that it may never be mandatory. He also considers the issues of collaboration and complicity, in addition to transparency in respect of the use of the death penalty.

Limitations to the most serious crimes
“As part of an international treaty, the term ‘most serious crimes’ should be understood as an international standard applicable to all States,” Mr. Heyns said, noting that States cannot claim compliance with international norms merely because the crime is seen as serious in its specific context. “This consideration rules out the imposition of the death penalty for apostasy and homosexual conduct. In most countries these are not crimes at all, let alone viewed as ‘most serious crimes’.”

Likewise, the death penalty should not be imposed for drug-related and economic offences. “If used at all, the death penalty may be used only where someone was intentionally killed,” the Special Rapporteur reiterated.

“States should ensure transparency – regarding individual cases of capital prosecution, death sentences and execution – to prisoners, their family members and the public, as well as the international community,” Mr. Heyns said. He stressed that transparency is essential whenever the death penalty is imposed.

Collaboration and complicity
“The actual execution of a prisoner sentenced to death may depend on the collaboration of a web of actors beyond the executing State,” the independent expert noted. “Where the death penalty is imposed in violation of international standards, this assistance may amount to complicity and should lead to indirect legal or other responsibility on the part of the assisting party.”

“States should amend national laws on extradition and deportation to prohibit the enforced transfer of persons to States where there is a genuine risk that the death penalty may be imposed in violation of internationally recognised standards,” he pointed out. He reiterated his view that abolitionist States that transfer a person where there is any risk of the death penalty are in violation of their legal obligations, whether or not the executing State complies with international standards. Accordingly, he also urged amendment of relevant national laws in abolitionist States.

The Special Rapporteur called on States, non-State actors and international organizations to heighten their scrutiny of policies of cooperation, drug- enforcement, the export of lethal drugs and other forms of legal, technical or logistical assistance to avoid being complicit in the imposition of the death penalty.

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s report to the UN General Assembly: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N12/457/80/PDF/N1245780.pdf?OpenElement


The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns (South Africa), is a director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, where he has also directed the Centre for Human Rights, and has engaged in wide-reaching initiatives on human rights in Africa. He has advised a number of international, regional and national entities on human rights issues. Mr. Heyns’ research interests include international human rights law and human rights law in Africa. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Executions/Pages/SRExecutionsIndex.aspx

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/ccpr.htm

For more information and media requests, please contact Vanessa Asensio (+41 22 917 9158 / vasensioperez@ohchr.org) or write to eje@ohchr.org.

UN Human Rights, follow us on social media:
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/unitednationshumanrights
Twitter: http://twitter.com/UNrightswire
Google+ gplus.to/unitednationshumanrights
YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/UNOHCHR

Check the Universal Human Rights Index: http://uhri.ohchr.org/en