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"Justice that kills – the death penalty in the 21st century" -- Key Note Speech by Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, on the occasion of 12th World Day against the Death Penalty; Geneva, 09 October 2014

Dear organizers,
Mr. Moderator,
Distinguished panelists,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I thank the European Union, the Permanent Mission of Italy to the UN Offices in Geneva and the Graduate Institute for organising this event on the occasion of the 12th World Day against the Death Penalty.” 

I also thank the organisers for providing an opportunity to launch the publication in front of you, entitled; Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends and Perspectives - published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and to deliver the key note speech.

Why yet another book on the death penalty? The answer is simple: As long as the death penalty exists, there is a need for advocacy against it. This book provides arguments and analysis, reviews trends and shares perspectives and good practices on moving away from the death penalty.

This publication offers solid scientific evidence that supports abolition of the death penalty. Although it is an advocacy book, written and edited by committed abolitionists, it clearly distinguishes between facts and values. It encourages everyone to choose their stand on the death penalty, based on reliable information.

I must acknowledge the worldwide progress made towards abolition since 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts the human right to life. Back then, 66 years ago, only 14 countries had abolished the death penalty.

Currently, around 160 countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. The support for abolition resonates across regions, legal systems, traditions, customs and religious backgrounds. Year after year, more countries are turning away from the death penalty. This is also reflected in the increasingly wide support to the annual General Assembly resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

Yet, I will not hide the fact that currently there are also setbacks, such as when some States resume executions after decades. In addition, there have been isolated instances where states have reintroduced the death penalty. In 2013, after many years of slow, but consistent moving away from the death penalty, we have had a 12% increase in the number of executions when compared to 2012, and the number of executing states increased by one. Exactly for this reason, we need to continue and even strengthen our advocacy for the universal abolition of the death penalty.
 
The publication in front of you addresses the main reasons why the death penalty should be abolished.

First, wrongful convictions - no legal system is immune to mistakes, so to execute people is too final to be acceptable. Even the most developed, well-functioning and robust legal systems, those with multiple judicial safeguards, have put to death scores of individuals who subsequently were proven to be innocent.

 Second, deterrence - or the lack of it. There is no reliable evidence that there is any deterring effect of the death penalty.  Some Member States have been insisting on the death penalty for their own specific crime prevention reasons. Some claim they need it to fight terrorism or to fight drug trafficking. However, I repeat, there is no conclusive evidence of any deterring effects of the death penalty.

Then, it is the issue of discrimination. Who is being executed? It’s usually marginalized groups. Literally all executed individuals are largely poor and most others belong to ethnic, national or religious minorities or belong to other vulnerable parts of society such as migrants.  

Another disturbing aspect is the execution of persons with mental or intellectual disability. This issue is theme of this year’s World Day against the Death Penalty.  While we oppose the death penalty absolutely, we are also concerned to see existing minimum safeguards are not fully implemented.  Among these is the requirement in human rights standards that persons with mental or intellectual disabilities should not face the death penalty. Perhaps this year’s GA resolution on a moratorium may address this issue?

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Some argue that you need the death penalty as a justice for victims, for their families. However, in practice, it doesn’t look that way. First of all, many victims do not want revenge but prefer justice without revenge or retribution. Research shows, victims want to be heard; to share their recounts of loss and grief but also ways in which they begun to recover some equilibrium in their lives and ways to honor the memory of their lost family members.  Secondly, the ones who want revenge do not really get it because if you want to avoid mistakes and miscarriages of justice those are long, long, long proceedings and in the end, very few people get executed in most systems.

From some States and their leaders, you may hear that public opinion is in favor of the death penalty. But that’s the question of leadership.  Human progress does not stand still. Popular support for the death penalty today does not mean that it will still be there tomorrow. There are undisputed historical precedents where laws, policies and practices that were inconsistent with human rights standards had the support of a majority of the people, but were proven wrong and eventually abolished or banned. But this requires proper leadership.

On 25th September, we organized a panel of Heads of State and government, consisting of leaders that have helped countries or regions to move away from the death penalty. This was a unique opportunity to learn more about experiences and strategies regarding moratoria and abolition and the leadership required to make this happen.

All these themes are captured in this publication. It is a part of global action to encourage moratoria, leading to global abolition of the death penalty.

I strongly believe that one day, people will look back and wonder how it was possible that the death penalty ever existed—just like, in most societies today, it is already hard to understand how slavery could have ever been allowed. I hope that day is not far away from us.  All of us can contribute so that it comes soon rather than later.

Thank you for your attention and I wish you a successful discussion.