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World Congress Against the Death Penalty

Minister Brende,
Distinguished participants,

I am honoured to be speaking to you on behalf of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, BAN Ki-moon. He has asked me to deliver to you the following message:
The United Nations stands strong against the death penalty. I thank the organizers, all participants and our partners around the world for their efforts to rid the world of capital punishment.

A few months ago, I had the honour to meet Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person to be spared the death penalty thanks to DNA evidence. We were launching the invaluable book “Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends and Perspectives” by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Mr. Bloodsworth told his harrowing story of being condemned to death even though he was innocent. And he talked about how he had made it his life’s work to speak out against the death penalty. He explained the stakes in simple, stark terms, saying, “You cannot un-execute someone.”

That day, I pledged in my heart to fight even harder against this affront to human dignity and the right to life.

When an innocent person is wrongly executed, the death penalty also kills all hopes for justice.

More and more Member States of the United Nations understand this. I am heartened by the global trend towards abolishing the death penalty. I count on all of you to continue pushing until this work is finished and our world is free of capital punishment.

This is essential to realizing the vision of the United Nations for a more just, humane and sustainable future.

The Secretary General sends his warmest regards and his hopes for a fruitful discussion.

Excellencies,

Our struggle to end the use of the death penalty is picking up momentum.  Over 170 countries have either abolished the death penalty or   taken a position in favour of ending executions by introducing moratorium in law or practice. Fewer than 40 countries continue to uphold the practise. At this rate, we can envisage an end to the use of the death penalty in our lifetimes.

But we do also face a very real risk of backlash. Alongside the very disturbing rise of political demagogues and hate-fuelled rhetoric in several parts of the world, we hear calls for a return to the use of the death penalty. This is part of a desperate search for simple solutions in a world of fast-moving and complex threats.

Terrorism is one of those threats. However, some States clamp down on so-called terrorist behaviour which is actually a pretext for shutting down political opponents. Deplorably, they seek to criminalize the legitimate exercise of fundamental freedoms by including them in overly vague counter-terrorism legislation. Let us be clear: participation in peaceful protests and criticism of a government – whether in private, on the Internet or in the media – are neither crimes nor terrorist acts. The threat or use of the death penalty in such cases is an egregious violation of human rights.

Regarding actual acts of terrorism involving premeditated murder, which could be considered as “most serious crimes” in States that continue to apply the death penalty, the observance of a number of important safeguards is essential – including scrupulous respect of due process guarantees and legality. Let me recall that the UN supports the end to the use of the death penalty in all cases.   For when the State makes a mistake, and no judiciary is mistake-free, the State then has become the murderer.  Furthermore, I want to emphasise that no credible evidence of any kind indicates that capital punishment has a deterrent effect. What does deter crime is the certainty of justice, consistently and promptly administered. The argument that capital punishment will diminish terrorism is an empty one. In fact, putting terrorists to death serves as propaganda for their movements by creating perceived martyrs and enhancing their macabre recruiting campaigns.

Maintaining rule of law and respect for human rights, even in the face of terrorism and violent extremism, is an act of courage and sanity – factors that boost society's resilience and ability to resist terrorist threats. When Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Utøya and here in Oslo almost five years ago, his goal was to destabilize the country by creating panic and over-reaction. The decency of the response in this country defeated that goal.  

I am impressed by a strategy deployed by several States, most recently the Republic of Congo and Nepal. Prohibitions of capital punishment are anchored into their new constitutions, making any return to the use of the death penalty far more difficult in the future. Constitutional prohibitions could provide a strong protective barrier in many other States which have ended the use of the death penalty, and may be worthy of consideration.

Many of us here today face the challenges of ensuring that international commitments to end the use of the death penalty are implemented. For international organizations, such as the UN, the essential focus must be on working with national stakeholders. My Office, together with the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council and the Human Rights Committee, offers detailed guidance and technical assistance.

In this 25th anniversary year of the entry into force of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, the UN calls on States that have not yet done so to ratify this Protocol, and to end the use of this practice.

Thank you.