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Special Procedures

“The death penalty should not be used as a deterrent for terrorism” – UN rights experts warn

A deterrent for terrorism?

07 October 2016

World Day Against the Death Penalty – Monday 10 October

GENEVA (7 October 2016) – Speaking ahead of the World Day Against the Death Penalty on Monday 10 October, a group of United Nations human rights experts reminded governments around the world that the imposition of the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent for terrorism, and most times it is also an unlawful one.

The UN Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, Agnes Callamard, on torture, Juan E. Méndez, and on human rights while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson, stressed that the threat of terrorism does not justify departing from international standards for the protection of human rights.

“Faced with terrorist attacks or terrorist threats in their countries, some governments have recently turned to the death penalty in an attempt to curb terrorist action, by either expanding the scope of offenses punishable by death or resuming executions for terrorist-related offences after years of moratoriums in executions.
These measures are problematic in many ways. Reintroducing the death penalty in countries that were de jure or de facto abolitionist runs contrary to the international trend towards the progressive abolition of the death penalty. The United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly called on member states to progressively restrict the use of the death penalty and reduce the number of crimes susceptible of such punishment.

Governments resort to the death penalty in their anti-terrorism campaigns in almost all regions in the world: 65 countries retain the death penalty in law for terrorism related offenses, of which 15 have carried out such executions in the last 10 years. In 2015, the death penalty was imposed for these offences in at least seven countries, with most executions taking place in the Middle East and North Africa.

Some countries made legal changes to introduce or expand the scope of the death penalty to terrorism-related offences. Many of those offenses do not amount to ‘most serious crimes’, meaning those involving intentional killing, for which the death penalty may be imposed under international law.

Arbitrary sentencing exists in several of the small minority of countries around the world which most frequently resort to capital punishment, and many States where the death penalty is used for terrorism-related offences lack a system of fair trial.

Executions carried out without adherence to the strictest guarantees of fair trial and due processes are unlawful and tantamount to an arbitrary execution. We have called on those governments once and again to halt such executions and to retrial the defendants in compliance with international standards, however in all too many instances this was sadly not the case.

This practice is also contrary to an emerging customary norm that the imposition and enforcement of the death penalty, in breach of international standards, is a violation per se of the prohibition of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

We acknowledge the risks to public safety and to lives posed by terrorism, but this threat does not justify departing from international standards for the protection of human rights.
Resorting to this type of punishment to curb terrorism is illegal as much as it is futile. There is a lack of persuasive evidence that the death penalty could contribute more than any other punishment to eradicating terrorism. The death penalty is also an ineffective deterrent because terrorists who are executed may just gain in prestige as may their cause.

The World Day Against the Death Penalty provides an opportunity to reflect on this worrying development.

While the world trend towards abolition remains strong, with new countries each year eradicating this form of punishment and adding their names to the two-thirds of the world which have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, it is disturbing to see a small minority of States wildly disregarding the international standards for the imposition of the death penalty and the protection of the right to life in their quest to thwart a real or perceived threat posed by terrorism.

On this day we should also reflect on the role that the international community can play in facing this worrying practice. We call on agencies and states offering financial or technical cooperation to counter terrorism to ensure that the programmes to which they contribute do not ultimately result in violations of the right to life.”

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. Learn more, log on to:

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