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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Opening address by Ms. Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Panel discussion on human rights of children of parents sentenced to the death penalty or executed at Twenty-fourth session, Human Rights Council

11 September 2013


 11 September 2013 - 10:00 a.m. to 13:00 p.m.

Salle XX, Palais des Nations

Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to open this important panel discussion. Developments over recent years in all regions of the world indicate a growing trend towards abolition of the death penalty. More than 150 of 193 Member States of the United Nations have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it. Many States have acknowledged that the death penalty undermines human dignity, and that its abolition contributes to the enhancement, progressive development, and full enjoyment of human rights by all.

Several international and regional human rights instruments prohibit the use of capital punishment or encourage its abolition and/or strictly limit its application. In particular, the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to date ratified by 76 States and signed by 36 States, provides that no one within the jurisdiction of a State Party to the present Protocol shall be executed. 

In States which have not abolished the death penalty, international human rights law requires, as a minimum, full compliance with the restrictions prescribed in the ICCPR and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  According to Article 6 of the ICCPR, the use of the death penalty shall be limited to “most serious crimes”. In addition, States must ensure that the guarantees of a fair trial and due process as prescribed in Article 14 of the ICCPR are strictly complied with. Article 6 of the ICCPR, as well as Article 37 of the CRC, provide that death penalty shall not be imposed for offences committed by persons below 18 years of age. Furthermore, Article 6 of the ICCPR prohibits the execution of pregnant women.

In addition to these limitations, States that use the death penalty also need to consider how to address the consequences of its use on society at large, in particular on families of individuals sentenced to death or executed.  In its resolution 22/11, this Council expressed deep concerns regarding the negative impact of the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty on the rights of children of parents sentenced to death or executed. It also urged States to provide those children with the protection and assistance they require.

In resolution 22/11, the Members of this Council also decided that the yearly supplement to the quinquennial report of the Secretary-General on the question of the death penalty will also include information on the particular subject we are discussing today. Following this decision, the Secretary-General included information on this issue in his recent report on the question of the death penalty (A/HRC/24/18) that was submitted to this session of the Council. While reporting on the implementation of international standards guaranteeing the protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, the Secretary-General’s report concludes, and I quote, that “there is also an urgent need to examine the effects of the capital punishment system in its entirety, including the social, economic and psychological impact on the children of those executed or under death sentence”.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Existing research suggests a number of negative short-term and long-term effects on children whose parents are sentenced to death or executed, including infringement of the enjoyment of a range of rights and obligations set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  In particular, these include:

  • The obligation to ensure that the best interests of the child are duly taken into account and protected (Article 3 of the CRC);
  • The right to be free from violence, in particular mental violence (Article 19 of the CRC);
  • The right to special protection and assistance when State action causes a child to be deprived of his or her family environment (Article 20 of the CRC);
  • The right to a standard of living adequate for a child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development (Article 27(1) of the CRC).

We learn from this list that the impact of the imposition of a death sentence on a parent can be particularly damaging for the child. Research suggests that the execution of a parent may affect a child’s health in a number of ways, including emotional trauma leading to long-term damage to mental health. This may be particularly aggravated where the parent is on death row for a long time pending appeal.

Children of parents who are sentenced to death may also suffer discrimination, especially where the parent’s offence is publicly known, including through media exposure. In some countries, children of parents who are executed or on death row are considered to be criminals themselves. Evidence also shows that the death penalty disproportionately affects the poor as well as certain racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Thus, a child may feel further discrimination on grounds of race, religion or economic condition, as well as owing to the stigma due to the death sentence facing their parent or parents.

The effects can be drastic. In some cases, children become orphans as a result of the execution of one or both parents, or may be forced onto the street if the surviving parent is unable to take care of them.  In some cases, children may have to stop their education and start working to compensate for the loss of earnings of an executed parent. This deplorable situation often leads to the child suffering physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, in contravention of article 19 of the CRC.

In some cases, convicted inmates are not informed of their forthcoming execution, nor are their families and lawyers, and bodies of the executed inmates are not returned to the families. The Human Rights Committee has concluded that the failure to inform family members of upcoming executions is incompatible with article 7 of the ICCPR and constitutes inhumane or cruel treatment. Such secrecy also violates the right of the child to information regarding sentencing of their parents under article 9(4) of the CRC. In this regard, in its resolution 22/11, this Council called upon States to provide children of parents who are on death row or have been executed with access to their mother or father and to all relevant information about their situation.

Mr. President,

We have a distinguished panel of speakers on the podium today. Drawing on their rich experience, I have no doubt that this panel will trigger a fruitful discussion on this important topic. I hope it will provide an opportunity to identify challenges and best practices, and to exchange views and ideas on the protection and assistance needed by the children of parents sentenced to death penalty or executed so as to ensure the protection and enjoyment of all their human rights.

I wish you a productive discussion.

Thank you.