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Poverty makes people especially vulnerable to injustice

Death Penalty: Poverty and the Right to legal Representation
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet
New York, 25 September 2018

Distinguished Ministers,
Colleagues, friends,

When I took up my functions as High Commissioner for Human Rights, on 1 September, one of the first invitations that I gladly accepted was to open this panel on the death penalty and poverty. I take this opportunity to thank the Member States sponsoring the event: Italy, Brazil, Burkina Faso, France, and Timor Leste.

As I considered the issue of the death penalty, I reflected on a sequence of issues. I would like to share this sequence with you because it creates an essential context.

First: Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals are a global vision for peace, for human rights, and for development. Their essence is drawn from human rights - the rights to education, health, adequate housing, and much more. The Secretary-General has made the SDGs a top priority and the UN is working with Member States to reform the Development System to this end.

Second: some elements essential to the success of the SDGs lie beyond development alone. To truly “leave no-one behind”, development action must be underpinned by the rule of law. Member States, including national and municipal authorities, need to rely on a suitable body of law and justice to apply the human rights standards that are at the core to the SDGs. Law guides the decisions on policies and budgets that will drive implementation of the SDGs. Justice systems provide accountability to ensure the law is applied correctly, and recourse when it is not. To benefit from the SDGs and escape poverty, everyone, but particularly the very poor, must be able to rely on the rule of law.

Third: when we say “the rule of law”, we mean human rights. In preparing for the position of High Commissioner, I re-read the 1993 Vienna Declaration on human rights that led to the establishment of this Office. The Declaration made clear that UN action on the Rule of Law is human rights-based. And it called for the UN’s human rights office to coordinate a “comprehensive program” for the Rule of Law.

Fourth: there is no more heart-rending example of the failure of the rule of law than when inequity in justice systems is compounded by poverty to expose people to the ultimate injustice of the death penalty. International human rights law calls for the abolition of the death penalty, because it considers the penalty itself a violation of rights. But international human rights law also opposes the inequity in the death penalty’s application. There is no question that while the death penalty continues to exist there will always be errors or abuse of its application.

In conclusion, at its most specific, the subject that has brought to us here today is about individuals around the world whose poverty makes them especially vulnerable to injustice generated by failures in justice systems and the rule of law.

At its broadest, this issue is about achieving the high quality of global development promised in the SDGs. It is about ensuring that the rule of law is grounded in human rights. It is about our respect for humanity and for ourselves.

If we are unable to guarantee that the poor will receive justice, when their very lives are at risk in the context of the death penalty, how can we hope to provide the rule of law foundation needed to achieve the SDGs?

And so in opening this panel, I appeal to Member States:
  • Help us ensure that the rule of law underlies the 2030 Agenda and the UN Development System.
  • Help us ensure that multilateral action on the rule of law is human rights-based, as envisioned by you in Vienna a quarter century ago
  • Help us progress towards moratoriums and eventual abolition of the death penalty, with stronger justice systems to protect all human rights
We call on all States to demonstrate their commitment to the universal abolition of the death penalty. The UN Human Rights Office opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances.

I commend again the Member States taking the lead on this issue and thank our distinguished panelists who will share their experience with us today.