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Human Rights Council Holds Biennial High-Level Panel Discussion on the Question of the Death Penalty

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23 February 2021

MORNING
23 February 2021

High Commissioner for Human Rights: There is no Evidence that the Death Penalty Deters Crime More Effectively than any other Punishment

The Human Rights Council this morning held its biennial high-level panel discussion on the question of the death penalty, with a focus on human rights violations related to the use of the death penalty, in particular with respect to whether the use of the death penalty has a deterrent effect on crime rate.

Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that there was no evidence that the death penalty deterred crime more effectively than any other punishment. Studies suggested that some States that had abolished the death penalty saw their murder rates unaltered or even decline. Studies had shown that it was the certainty of punishment, not its severity, that deterred criminals. There could be no greater call than an end to impunity, because if impunity fed crime, justice would prevent it. True deterrence was the rule of law.

The panellists were Djimet Arabi, Minister of Justice of Chad, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Commissioner of the International Commission against the Death Penalty,

Christopher Arif Bulkan, Member of the Human Rights Committee, and Carolyn Hoyle, Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford,

In the ensuing discussion, speakers noted that there was no evidence that the use of the death penalty had a deterrent effect on crimes. Speakers underlined that the right to life was the source of all rights, and noted that the death penalty disproportionately affected the poor, and also that it increased the incidence of hate crimes towards sexual minorities. Sharing experience internationally in fora such as the Council helped demonstrate the inefficiency of the death penalty in tackling crime rates. Other speakers argued that there was no international consensus on the death penalty, when implemented according to the rule of law. States had a sovereign right to choose their legal code and maintain the death penalty if they believed it appropriate, adding that a moratorium on the death penalty risked overlooking the rights of the victims of crime.

Speaking in the discussion were the Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland on behalf of a group of countries, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden on behalf of a group of countries, the Minister for Foreign and European Affairs of Croatia, the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, the Vice Minister of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, the Special Representative for Human Rights of the European Union, and the Minister of State and Foreign Affairs of Portugal. Also speaking were Liechtenstein on behalf of a group of countries, Singapore on behalf of a group of countries, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Cabo Verde on behalf of Portuguese language countries, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Spain, Italy, Fiji, Botswana, United Kingdom, Timor Leste, Iraq and Namibia.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: Commission of human rights of the Philippines, International Federation of ACAT (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture), International Lesbian and Gay Association, National Human Rights Council of Morocco, Centre for Global Nonkilling, and Amnesty International.

The Council will next resume its high-level segment.

Opening Statement by the President of the Council

NAZHAT SHAMEEM KHAN, President of the Human Rights Council, said the biennial high-level panel discussion on the question of the death penalty was being held pursuant to resolution 42/24. The theme of this year's panel was "Human rights violations related to the use of the death penalty, in particular with respect to whether the use of the death penalty has a deterrent effect on crime rate". She then introduced the speakers.

Keynote Statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that there was no evidence that the death penalty deterred crime more effectively than any other punishment. Studies suggested that some States that had abolished the death penalty saw their murder rates unaltered or even decline. Studies had shown that it was the certainty of punishment, not its severity, that deterred criminals. There could be no greater call than an end to impunity, because if impunity fed crime, justice would prevent it. True deterrence was the rule of law. There was no such thing as an infallible mistake-proof judiciary - it was human to make mistakes. But when a miscarriage of justice resulted in the killing of a person, the State itself violated the fundamental right to life.

Both the evidence and the policy argument supported the opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances. Ms. Bachelet said she was deeply encouraged by the international trends towards abolition, as she commended Kazakhstan on the ratification of the second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at abolition. She encouraged the Government of Chad to ratify the second Optional Protocol as well, following the national abolition of the death penalty last May, and she welcomed the pledge by the new administration in the United States to work towards ending the death penalty, both at federal and state level.

In concluding, Ms. Bachelet said that worldwide, the vast majority of States had either abolished the death penalty in law or did not carry out executions in practise. The death penalty undermined human dignity and denied the most basic right to life.

Statements by the Panellists

DJIMET ARABI, Minister of Justice of Chad, declared that since May 2020, Chad had become an abolitionist State. Since independence, Chad had endured much violence, with the death penalty being part of the criminal code. A moratorium on the death penalty had existed from 1990-2005, with terrorists being exempt, though in practice these sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. In order to tackle terrorism, from 2015, the Government had adopted a new act, which implemented the death penalty for these terrorist acts. Nonetheless, in 2017, the Government had started a revision of its penal code to bring it in line with international norms. The May 2020 Act had brought about an end to the death penalty. In line with this revision, prison conditions had been improved with new prisons built. Chad, as a leading country within the G5 Sahel region, recognised the importance of trying to humanise the legal framework, and bolster international cooperation.

TSAKHIA ELBEGDORJ, Commissioner of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, emphasised that the sanctity of human life was very important. Mr. Elbegdorj said that when he was sworn in as President of Mongolia, he had faced a choice to commute or to continue carrying out death sentences, and he chose life - Mongolia no longer had a death penalty. The three main lessons from that experience were: political will and continued leadership played a central role; a step by step approach in decision making and international support was very important; and maintaining the status of the death penalty-free country was crucial. There had been no increase in violent crimes after the abolition of the death penalty in Mongolia. Mr. Elbegdorj called on all to be vigilant until the last death sentences were removed.

CHRISTOPHER ARIF BULKAN, Member of the Human Rights Committee, said that

in Canada, Eastern Europe and states in the United States, abolition or moratoriums on the death penalty had resulted in dramatic declines in homicide rates. Conversely, countries that retained the death penalty and continued to implement it showed no comparable success in reducing their homicide rates. In the commonwealth Caribbean, there were few studies that actually explored the efficacy of the death penalty, but what evidence existed supported the view that it was ineffective as a deterrent. Reducing poverty would be the best deterrent of all. A productive response would be to strengthen policing to ensure that crimes were solved in the first place, and to improve the justice system to reduce backlogs and ensure convictions that were upheld.

CAROLYN HOYLE, Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford, stressed that the death penalty violated human rights norms, especially for crimes other than murder. However, governments often justified the retention of capital punishment by asserting that it was an effective deterrent. An analysis of hundreds of deterrence studies in the United States and Europe had found that while deterrent effects could be found in relation to minor crimes, there were no such effects on murder for any punishment, including execution. Around the world, there were more than 3,000 people under sentence of death for drug offences. The murder rate fell in various countries following abolition, including Australia, Canada and across eastern Europe. South Africa still had a high murder rate, but it was lower than it was before abolition.

Discussion

In the ensuing discussion, speakers noted that there was no evidence that the use of the death penalty had a deterrent effect on crimes, it was a violation of the right to life, and carried the real risk of false convictions. Indeed, miscarriages of justice could not be rectified, and given this, the death penalty could not be accepted in the modern age. Speakers underlined that the right to life was the source of all rights, and noted that the death penalty disproportionately affected the poor, and also that it increased the incidence of hate crimes towards sexual minorities. Some believed that sharing experiences in international fora such as the Council helped demonstrate the inefficiency of the death penalty in tackling crime rates, and congratulated those countries that had already signed or ratified the second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights for abolishing the death penalty. They called for all countries to ratify the Optional Protocol, and work to reintegrate the perpetrators of crime into society, rather than execute them.

The abolition of the death penalty was not a matter of culture or history, but one of politics. Where the death penalty was still in place, speakers called on States to ensure that minors, women, and those with mental disabilities were exempted from this punishment. Other speakers argued that there was no international consensus on the death penalty, when implemented according to the rule of law. States had a sovereign right to choose their legal code and maintain the death penalty if they believed it appropriate. A moratorium on the death penalty risked overlooking the rights of the victims of crime. As such it remained an important component of the criminal justice system, when implemented according to the judicial system.

Concluding Remarks

DJIMET ARABI, Minister of Justice of Chad, said there was no global consensus on the abolition of the death penalty. It was clear that the death penalty today was one of the major human rights violations that existed. Despite the unstable security situation marked by terrorism, Chad had decided to align itself with countries which had abolished the death penalty. All States were urged to follow suit.

TSAKHIA ELBEGDORJ, Commissioner of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, said that political leadership and belief was needed to abolish the death penalty. Abolitionism could not be taken for granted and there was an additional threat of reinstating the death penalty in some countries. In these instances, the international community should work together with civil society and human rights institutions.

CHRISTOPHER ARIF BULKAN, Member of the Human Rights Committee, urged States parties to rely on evidence. Social science and experts had demonstrated inefficiencies in applying the death penalty. In terms of economic costs, costs of capital punishment were not lower. As for the sovereign right of States to take their own criminal justice approach, they were advised to listen to all problems, from delays to discriminatory practices, including using the death penalty as a tool of slavery.

CAROLYN HOYLE, Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford, said that informed public opinion was crucial. In the absence of proper information, how could the view of civil society be appropriate? When people were told that the death penalty was not an effective deterrent, their support for the death penalty would decline. People usually had faith in adequate social and education policies in resolving crimes. Many countries had abolished death penalty without public support.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/02/il-ressort-du-debat-biennal-du-conseil-des-droits-de-lhomme-sur

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For use of the information media; not an official record

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