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Remarks by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the High Level Event on the Death Penalty, 68th Session of the General Assembly, New York, 27 September 2013

30 September 2013

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I welcome the opportunity to address this High-Level Event on the death penalty, organised by the Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations, focusing on the role of regional organisations and advocacy to abolish the death penalty.

I wish in particular to congratulate Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius for making the goal of universal abolition one of the priorities of his mandate, and for the leading role assumed by France toward.

I also share the Foreign Minister’s view that progress towards universal abolition, though slow, is encouraging, and I welcome the adoption last year by the Republic of Benin of the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aimed at ending capital punishment. On 24 September, Guinea-Bissau ratified the Second Optional Protocol and Angola signed it. Earlier in 2013, Bolivia and Latvia ratified this treaty. It is a positive development to have three ratifications in this year.

A number of other States are currently engaged in national debates on whether to introduce an official moratorium or to abolish the death penalty altogether.

At intergovernmental level, you will recall that the Human Rights Council has decided to convene, at its 25th session early next year, a high-level panel discussion on the death penalty with the aim of exchanging views on advances, best practices and challenges relating to its abolition of the death penalty.

As this promising trend continues to gather force, let me point out that regional and sub-regional organizations have deep knowledge, unique insights and strong local networks to generate meaningful debate about the effectiveness of the death penalty.

As High Commissioner, I have seen first-hand the value of cooperation between the United Nations and regional and sub-regional organizations across the globe.

In Africa, for example, we cooperate closely with the African Union. The European Union Liaison Delegation to the African Union Commission has expressed interest in collaborating with OHCHR through our East African Regional Office, to jointly support the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights on the death penalty. Specifically, my Office will assist in the compilation of all the existing studies undertaken by the UN and the AU, including those on the issue of deterrence.

OHCHR will also help co-organize a regional event for African Union member states to encourage them to ratify the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

OHCHR cooperation with the European Union (EU) is geographically and substantively wide-ranging. The EU has been a champion of efforts to abolish the death penalty globally and has supported our many death penalty events in New York, which focus on deepening knowledge of the injustices of the application of the death penalty.

My Office is assisting in informing these debates with a series of ‘knowledge’ panel events. The first event held in NY in 2012, and opened by the Secretary-General sought to draw lessons from the experiences of Member States that have taken action to abolish the death penalty, establish a moratorium on its application or limit the scope of its application. This event also highlighted the importance of political leadership to shape the debate, and the need for support from a broad coalition of victims’ families, communities, law enforcement officials, political leaders and faith leaders, human rights defenders and civil rights organizations to end the death penalty. 

The second NY-based event held this past June, and again opened by the Secretary-General, focused on the failure of the judicial system to remedy wrongful convictions in death penalty cases. This event included one speaker, Damien Echols, who spent 18 years on death row here in the United States before being exonerated because he was innocent.

It is often said judicial oversight is the remedy to wrongful convictions. So it is quite striking that even in Member States with multiple layers of judicial oversight, persons wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row, wait for years, even decades, to have the egregious error reversed.

Often in such cases, it is civil society and local communities that keep hope alive, not the judicial appeals system.
Particularly disturbing to me is that in some Member States, defendants following their conviction are either not entitled, as a matter of law, to introduce newly discovered evidence of innocence or must overcome often insurmountable procedural hurdles.

Thankfully, some Member States are beginning to recognize that the protection of the innocent and human life must remain the priority.

In the coming months, my Office in New York will host additional knowledge events, including one on the myth of the death penalty’s deterrent effect, and another on discrimination in the way it is applied.

In addition, of great concern to me is the fact that a number of retentionist States implement the death penalty in secrecy, where there is no data on the number of executions or individuals on death row, some of whom are mentally ill.

Today’s event is a welcome opportunity to explore how the UN and regional organizations can share experiences on moving away from the death penalty and improve cooperation. The community of nations in its majority is with us. The General Assembly’s call in 2007 for a global moratorium on the death penalty was a historic first step in the natural progression towards full worldwide abolition. And December last year saw the General Assembly’s last push, a call upon States that have not yet done so to consider acceding to or ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

Let us preserve this momentum away from a moratorium on the death penalty and towards its full abolition. Together with civil society and regional organizations everywhere, we can put a final end to this inhumane and unjust practice.

Thank you.