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Biennial high-level panel discussion on the question of the death penalty

Human Rights Council 40th Session
Theme: “Human rights violations related to the use of the death penalty, in particular with respect to the rights to non-discrimination and equality”

Opening Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

26 February 2019

Mr. President,
Colleagues and friends,

I am pleased to open this high-level panel on the question of the death penalty.

The UN opposes the use of the death penalty, everywhere, and in all circumstances. Today, I am pleased to say, there is a clear international trend towards abolition. Worldwide, some 170 States, with a variety of legal systems, traditions, cultures and religions, have either abolished the death penalty in law, or do not carry out executions in practice. At the end of last year, 121 States – the highest ever number – voted in favour of the General Assembly resolution for a moratorium on use of the death penalty.

The theme of this panel is particularly well chosen, because nowhere is discrimination more evident than when one looks at the people on death row – the people who society has decided are beyond rehabilitation and should be killed. My Office conducts prison visits around the globe, and our colleagues consistently report that death rows are disproportionately populated by the poor and economically vulnerable; members of ethnic minorities; people with psycho-social or intellectual disabilities; foreign nationals; indigenous persons; and other marginalised members of society.

Often, we see that poverty, illiteracy or language barriers mean that the right to effective legal representation of defendants facing the death penalty is not respected. Too often, foreign nationals are not promptly informed of their right to consular assistance.

Any one of these breaches of due process renders the application of this most severe and irreversible punishment arbitrary, as the Human Rights Committee reiterated in its recent General Comment on the right to life. Yuval Shany, the Chair of the Committee, has graciously agreed to moderate this panel, and I look forward to hearing his thoughts on the General Comment, which is an important signpost towards abolition.

In some States, discrimination extends even to the provisions of the criminal code itself. Some people are sentenced to death simply for being part of the LGBTI community, for having expressed an opinion, for membership of a political group, or for exercising their freedom of religion – which, I remind you, includes the freedom to leave a religion.

Condemning people to death for conduct that should not be criminalised in the first place is never compatible with a State’s human rights obligations.

Discussions of capital punishment often neglect women. They are indeed executed at much lower rates than men, and in some cases are even exempted from the death penalty. But gender discrimination remains an important aspect of the death penalty. A study published last year by the Cornell Centre shows that women who have been sentenced to death across the world are often judged not only on the basis of their crime, but because they are perceived to have betrayed traditional gender roles.  Some women are sentenced to death for perceived moral transgressions such as adultery, or even for witchcraft – still capital offences in some countries, and used almost exclusively against women.

Other women who are sentenced to death for murdering their partner have been victims of severe and repeated domestic abuse  for years, and lived in fear for their lives – but the law in their countries only recognizes self-defence as a legal defence in the case of direct and imminent lethal threat.

Human rights are not static monoliths. They develop as our societies become more inclusive, integrating the voices and experiences of people who were previously marginalised. This process also brings to light past miscarriages of justice, too often with their roots in discrimination and stereotypes. We know no society is perfect. To continue to sentence people to death knowing that there is a risk, however small, of a mistake, is unacceptable.

I encourage all States represented here today to take a stand on the right side of history, and to join the international trend towards abolition.

Thank you