Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
Geneva, 23 February 2021
I am pleased to join you in discussing the fundamental question of whether the death penalty has a deterrent effect on crime rate.
I say fundamental because deterrence is often an argument of those who oppose its abolition.
However, there is no evidence that it deters crime more effectively than any other punishment.
On the contrary, studies suggest that some States that have abolished the death penalty saw their murder rates unaltered or even decline.
A group of UN Human Rights Experts noted the lack of persuasive evidence that the death penalty could contribute more than any other punishment to eradicating terrorism.
And in his 2019
report to the Human Rights Council, the Secretary-General stated there was little evidence that the death penalty had an impact on reducing any levels of crime.
Evidence should speak louder than assumptions.
Studies have shown that it is the
certainty of punishment, not its
severity, that deters criminals.
As early as the 18th century, criminologist Cesare Beccaria stated "one of the greatest curbs on crimes is not the cruelty of punishments, but their infallibility…"
There can be no greater call for an end to impunity.
If impunity feeds crime, justice will prevent it.
True deterrence is the rule of law.
Furthermore, failure in deterring crime is not the only reason why we should move away from the death penalty.
There is the severe mental and physical suffering inflicted by its imposition on the person concerned and family members.
An often arbitrary and discriminatory application, with odds often against the voiceless – the poor and economically vulnerable, those belonging to religious or ethnic minorities, LGBTI, people with disabilities, foreign nationals, indigenous peoples and other marginalised members of society.
Moreover, there is no such thing as an infallible mistake-proof judiciary.
Legal systems are made of people – and it is human to make mistakes. But when a miscarriage of justice results in the killing of a person, the State itself violates the fundamental right to life.
Studies and statistics regarding the use of capital punishment in retentionist States should be publicly available in order to enable informed debates. And it is worth reiterating that article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights sets out specific safeguards so that it is only applied for the most serious crimes -- which must be read restrictively and relate only to crimes of extreme gravity involving intentional killing. There are also safeguards protecting the rights of those facing the death penalty applicable in countries where the International Covenant has not yet been ratified.
Both the evidence and the policy arguments support our opposition to the death penalty everywhere and in all circumstances.
As the Secretary-General said, this punishment "has no place in the 21st century".
Despite still having causes for concern, I am deeply encouraged by the international trend towards abolition.
In this regard, I commend Kazakhstan for the signing of a law ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. I look forward to the formal submission of a ratification instrument to the United Nations and I encourage Kazakhstan to amend its national legislation to be in full compliance with the Protocol, including through Constitutional amendments.
I encourage the Government of Chad to ratify the second Optional Protocol, following the abolition of the death penalty in national law last May.
And, I welcome the pledge by the new US Administration to work towards ending the death penalty, both at federal and state level.
Worldwide, the vast majority of 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, 123 States voted in favour of the General Assembly resolution for a moratorium on use of the death penalty.
The death penalty undermines human dignity and denies our most basic right, the right to life.
I congratulate all States that have either abolished or taken steps away from the death penalty.
I encourage you to share your experiences and encourage others to consider the movement in this same direction.
Thank you for work to uphold this most fundamental of rights, upon which all others depend.