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Opinion editorial Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Death Penalty: Paying heed to the UN’s calls by Navi Pillay

04 October 2010

4 October 2010

In November, the UN General Assembly is expected to reiterate its call for a world-wide moratorium on the use of the death penalty.  Over the years, the largest UN intergovernmental body—it includes all UN Member States—has built stepping stones towards the definitive abolition of capital punishment, endorsing widely shared skepticism over its supposed deterrent effect on criminality.  Crucially, the GA has emphasized that the death penalty undermines human dignity, and that a moratorium on its use contributes to the enhancement and progressive development of human rights.

This sentiment finds echoes in every region of the world. The number of formerly pro-death penalty states has almost tripled in the 20 years since the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) aiming at the abolition of the death penalty was adopted.  In all, around 140 of the 192 UN Member States are believed to have now repealed the death penalty either legally, or in practice.

And the trend continues to grow.  Last year, for the first time, since Amnesty International started keeping records three decades ago, not a single execution took place in Europe.

In 2010, however, Belarus broke the European-wide moratorium by executing two persons in March – and this despite the fact that the Human Rights Committee, the UN body which oversees implementation of the ICCPR, had requested interim measures of protection.  Reportedly, two more executions are imminent making Belarus the lone holdout state in an otherwise death penalty-free area. In effect, albeit not yet in law, this area stretches practically from Western Europe all the way to Central Asia.

Practice in Europe’s neighbors also leans in the right direction with Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia enforcing a de facto two-decade-long moratoria. Law and practice concerning the death penalty have moved along the same positive path in Africa in general.  Only Botswana, Sudan, Libya and Egypt carried out executions last year.

Despite these positive developments in the Old Continent and in Africa, the scenario at other latitudes is deeply disturbing: more people were executed in Asia in 2009 than in the rest of the world combined.  Together with the United States, which carried out 52 executions in 2009, the leading practitioners of capital punishment, based upon the rate of executions per capita over the last few years, are primarily countries located in the Middle East or Asia.  

I am opposed to the death penalty in all cases. I hold this position for a number of reasons: these include the fundamental nature of the right to life; the unacceptable risk of executing innocent people by mistake; the absence of proof that the death penalty serves as a deterrent; and what is, to my mind, the inappropriately vengeful character of the sentence.

The death penalty must always be regarded as an extreme exception to the fundamental right to life—which is protected under international law—and must as such be interpreted in the most restrictive manner.  Accordingly, the ICCPR lists specific red lines regarding the imposition and applications of capital punishment.

All too often, however, the death penalty is carried out in ways that violate international norms, such as the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as anti-discrimination standards. 

In addition, studies show that the death penalty is imposed disproportionately against poor and discriminated people in any given society. 

Abolishing the death penalty is a long process for many countries, which often only comes to closure after a period of difficult and even acrimonious national debate. Until they reach that point, I urge those States still employing the death penalty to place a formal moratorium on its use with a view to ultimately scrap the punishment altogether everywhere.

If the General Assembly’s call for a global moratorium is a powerful reminder that the natural progression of the law leads to universal abolition, the heart of the matter now and in the future remains paying heed to pledges made at that global UN forum.