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Death penalty disproportionately affects the poor, UN rights experts warn

World Day Against the Death Penalty – Tuesday 10 October 2017

GENEVA (6 October 2017) – United Nations human rights experts* are calling for urgent action to end the disproportionate impact of the death penalty on people from poorer communities. They say imposing the death penalty as a result of discrimination constitutes an arbitrary killing and Governments must not stand idly by. Their comments come in a joint statement marking World Day Against the Death Penalty on Tuesday 10 October:

“If you are poor, the chances of being sentenced to death are immensely higher than if you are rich. There could be no greater indictment of the death penalty than the fact that in practice it is really a penalty reserved for people from lower socio-economic groups. This turns it into a class-based form of discrimination in most countries, thus making it the equivalent of an arbitrary killing.

People living in poverty are disproportionately affected by the death penalty for many reasons. They are an easy target for the police, they cannot afford a lawyer, the free legal assistance they might receive is of low quality, procuring expert evidence is beyond their means, tracing witnesses is too costly, and access to appeals often depends on being able to afford extra counsel. Many cannot afford bail and therefore remain in custody before their trials, further hindering their efforts to prepare an effective defence.

Some legal aid systems become active only at the trial stage, meaning that defendants from low socio-economic backgrounds are often interrogated and investigated without a lawyer. By the time the case reaches court, it may already be too late to guarantee a fair trial. Corruption of law enforcement officials is another detrimental factor.

Poverty also compounds obstacles which vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in society are already facing.  In many countries, this especially includes people of African descent, as well as others who are discriminated against on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, race or migration status.

Meanwhile, migrants who find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system face multiple obstacles in effectively challenging charges made against them, including unfamiliarity with legal language and procedures, limited awareness of their rights, financial constraints, and the possible lack of a supportive social network.

They may also face bias by judges, police officers and investigators, which can influence the verdict against them, and leave them at increased risk of receiving the death sentence.

We call on all States to treat all migrants involved in the criminal justice systems with respect and dignity as equal rights holders, regardless of their migratory status.

Women living in poverty are also at a severe disadvantage when faced with the risk of a death sentence. In some States, women face the death penalty, including by stoning, not only in cases of murder, but also for alleged adultery, same sex-relationships and drug-related offences.  

Discrimination against women is compounded by intersecting factors, including their socio-economic status. This discrimination based on gender stereotypes, stigma, harmful and patriarchal cultural norms and gender-based violence, has an adverse impact on the ability of women to gain access to justice on an equal basis with men.
We are also concerned that it is extremely rare for domestic abuse to be treated as a mitigating factor. Imposing the death penalty in cases where there has been evidence of self-defence constitutes an arbitrary killing.

Poverty continues to affect prisoners - and their families – even after they reach death row. Living conditions are worsened by difficulties in accessing food, medical care and other services. Relatives who themselves live in poverty are unable to provide financial help. These inmates may even lack the resources to stay in touch with their families and friends while in prison.

Around the world, death sentences continue to be imposed in violation of major international standards, including the right to a fair trial and the principle of non-discrimination. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights makes clear that all people are entitled to the equal protection of the law without discrimination, while UN safeguards on the use of the death penalty make clear that people must have received a fair trial, including the right to adequate legal assistance, at all stages.

The disproportionate impact of the death penalty on the poor shows that these international standards are being violated.

We applaud the growing number of countries that have abolished the death penalty and welcome the figures for 2016 showing an overall decrease in its use.

However, the global effort towards its progressive abolition must continue to grow, along with the work to end systemic discrimination against some of the most vulnerable people in our societies.


(*) The UN experts: Ms. Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the Working Group on discrimination against womenMr. Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; Mr. Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty; Mr. Mutuma Ruteere, Special Rapporteur on racism; and the Working Group on people of African descent.

The Independent Experts 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.

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Vanessa Asensio Perez  (+41 22 917 9001 / vasensioperez@ohchr.org) or write to eje@ohchr.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Bryan Wilson – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9826 / mediaconsultant2@ohchr.org)  

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