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High-Level Side Event at the UN Human Rights Council on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Human Rights Council 41st Session
Opening Statement by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

2 July 2019

Excellencies,
Colleagues and friends,

I am delighted to join you for the opening of this high-level side event to mark the 30th anniversary of the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.

Last December marked another anniversary: 70 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
When it was signed, only ten countries had formally abolished the death penalty. Today, some 170 States – with a wide variety of legal systems, traditions, cultures and religions, have either abolished the death penalty in law, or do not carry out executions in practice. According to Amnesty International, last year only 19 of the 193 Member States of the United Nations actually carried out executions. 

It is difficult to think of another human rights issue where progress has been so swift and so marked. I am convinced that universal abolition is achievable. 

The treaty we are here to celebrate is one of the most important milestones on the road to universal abolition. The Second Optional Protocol was adopted in December 1989. I am honoured to share the podium today with its drafter, Marc Baron Bossuyt, and the distinguished Commissioners of the International Commission against the Death Penalty.

The Protocol demonstrates that human rights agreements and treaties are motivating force – not just words on a page. 

First, as the Protocol itself points out, article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights referred to abolition of the death penalty in terms that strongly suggest that abolition is desirable. The Protocol was the next logical step – and its adoption led to an acceleration in the number of countries enshrining abolition of the death penalty in law.
As with all human rights treaties, the Protocol serves as both a beacon and a guarantee. It encourages States to take an essential step towards the full realisation of human rights, by abolishing this cruel punishment. It also ensures that the road to abolition is a one-way street, with no possibility of reversal for its 87 States parties.

So, what of those 19 States where executions are still carried out? One study in the United States found that at least 4% of those sentenced to death are innocent.1 In most other States still applying the death penalty, it is applied with much less transparency, and fewer due process guarantees – and we can surmise that an even higher proportion of those killed were not guilty of the crime. This risk of an irreversible mistake is unacceptable. I repeat: innocent people are being put to death. 

Dostoyevsky famously said we can judge a society by how it treats its prisoners. We can also judge how deep is our commitment to a principle by how we apply it to those with whom we disagree most. People who have committed the most serious crimes, who are already in the custody of the State, are unable to cause further harm to society. 

The general comment on the right to life adopted last year by the Human Rights Committee noted that the increasing number of States signing the Second Optional Protocol, or declaring moratoria, may suggest that we are gradually progressing towards universal agreement that the death penalty constitutes a cruel, inhuman or degrading form of punishment. 

I encourage all of us to continue the fight for abolition until every State recognises that the death penalty is fundamentally cruel, and incompatible with a principled commitment to human rights.

At the UN, we will continue to advocate for every country, in every region of the world, to abolish this most cruel punishment. We can achieve the greatest progress by working together– and by empowering civil society on the ground to take the lead. I look forward to seeing the new initiatives, partnerships and momentum that will take us the next steps down the road to abolition. The abolitionist movement will always have the full support of my Office.

I thank you.

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1/ Samuel R. Gross, Barbara O’Brien, Chen Hu, and Edward H. Kennedy, Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 20, 2014 111 (20) 7230-7235; 2014, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1306417111