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UN rights experts hail Zambia’s move away from death penalty, but warn of “areas of concern” in Africa

GENEVA (22 July 2015) – Two United Nations human rights experts welcomed a recent decision by the President of Zambia, Edgar Lungui, to commute the death sentences of 332 individuals to life imprisonment. The UN Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, Christof Heyns, and on torture, Juan E. Méndez, also encouraged the Zambian authorities “to take a step further by removing all reference to the death penalty in the country’s laws.”

President Lungui commuted the sentences after his visit to Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison, which despite a capacity of 51 inmates, houses hundreds.

“By commuting these death sentences, the Zambia puts a stop to mental and physical pain and suffering, and takes an important step towards ensuring respect for the inherent dignity of the human person,” Mr. Mendez said.

“This decision is in line with the trend in Africa – as in the rest of the world – to move away from the death penalty. As the Secretary General of the UN has said, there is no room for this form of punishment in the 21st Century,” Mr Heyns said.

However, the experts warned of continuing areas of concern regarding the death penalty in Africa. In Egypt, they noted, hundreds of defendants at a time are sentenced to death in unfair mass trials. “Even though the execution rate is lower, these trials clearly do not meet international standards,” they said.

The situation in the Gambia is also worrying: after abruptly ending a longstanding moratorium and hanging nine people in 2012, it has now been proposed that the number of offenses punishable by death be expanded. “This proposal, if adopted, would be in stark contrast to the trend away from capital punishment elsewhere on the continent,” they underlined.

The independent experts noted that President Lungui’s decision supports previous steps towards the abolition of capital punishment in the Zambia, where a presidential moratorium on the death penalty has been maintained since 1997. However, they called on the Zambian authorities to vote in favour of the UN General Assembly’s resolution calling for a global moratorium, rather than abstaining, as they have in the previous four votes.

According to the Special Rapporteurs, three-quarters of the world States have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice and the same applies to Africa. In 2014 only four States in the region are known to have conducted executions. Earlier this month, the Togolese Republic became Africa’s 12th state party to the 2nd Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at the abolition of the death penalty.

Moreover, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has consistently called for the abolition of the death penalty over the last two decades. The Commission has drafted a Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Abolition of the Death Penalty.

“These are very significant steps by the Commission, and if the Protocol is adopted soon by the African Union and opened for ratification by African States, that will give a renewed emphasis to the process of putting the era of the death penalty behind us,” the UN experts stressed.

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. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Executions/Pages/SRExecutionsIndex.aspx

Juan E. Méndez (Argentina) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in November 2010. He is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Torture/SRTorture/Pages/SRTortureIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Zambia: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/ZMIndex.aspx

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