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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

High Commissioner Türk urges abolition of the death penalty

28 February 2023

Delivered by

Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


52nd session of the Human Rights Council



Biennial High-Level Panel Discussion on the Question of the Death Penalty

Theme: Human rights violations relating to the use of the death penalty,
in particular with respect to limiting the death penalty to the most serious crimes

Mr.  President,

Colleagues and Friends,

For many years, the United Nations has opposed the death penalty in all circumstances.

I share this position with the firmest conviction. Ultimately, this is about the UN Charter’s promise of the highest standards of protection of all human beings.

There are deeply compelling reasons for this position, both principled and practical. Let’s not forget that the infliction by the State of the death penalty - the most severe and irreversible of punishments - is profoundly difficult to reconcile with human dignity, and with the fundamental right to life.

And despite the broad range of legal systems, judicial processes and criminal justice contexts represented in this room today, there is one common element to all of them – as with all human institutions, none are perfect.

 And, perhaps more often than we realize, they can come to devastatingly wrong conclusions. In the context of the death penalty, that means, quite simply, that innocent people have been killed.

Such an outcome is intolerable for all of us. The use of the death penalty is egregious against any human being, in my view. When used against people who have not even committed the crime of which they are accused, it is unfathomable.

The existence of the death penalty in countries that maintain it – as well as the threat of its use - can be turned to improper purposes, such as instilling fear, repressing opposition, and quashing the legitimate exercise of freedoms.

In a number of contexts, the death penalty, in its practical application, also discriminates, condemning to death people on society’s sidelines, including racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities, and the LGBTQI-plus community. In other situations, it has been used with chilling effect on political opponents or protesters, notably young people.

In short, the death penalty is, in our common experience, an atavistic relic from the past that should be shed in the 21st century.

Evidence strongly suggests that the death penalty has little or no effect on deterring or reducing crime.  In fact, a number of studies have revealed that nations that have abolished the death penalty have seen their murder rates unchanged and, in some cases, decline.

Other studies clearly demonstrate that the key element policymakers should focus on is the inevitability of punishment, which is the more powerful deterrent, rather than its level of severity.

Mr. President,

The Human Rights Committee, which authoritatively interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has made clear that the only crimes permissible in the current state of the law are ‘crimes of extreme gravity, involving intentional killing.’

Yet I am deeply troubled that the death penalty continues to be used, in a variety of circumstances, for crimes that do not meet this ‘most serious’ threshold under international law.

The international legal framework also demands scrupulous respect of fair trial guarantees, that are especially crucial in respect of such an offence.

It prohibits torture or mistreatment, and guarantees rights of adequate defence, of appeal and to seek pardon or commutation.

It forbids the use of the mandatory death penalty.

And it bans capital punishment against people under 18 at the time of the alleged crime, pregnant women, new mothers and people with serious psychosocial or intellectual disabilities.

I welcome the work of the Human Rights Committee in developing its interpretation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in particular article 6 on the right to life. This provides crucial guidance to all States Parties to the Covenant, in all parts of the world.

But despite these clear stipulations, the death penalty is still being used improperly for drug-related offences, espionage, economic crimes, blasphemy and apostasy, same-sex relations or adultery, as well as – perversely - for the legitimate exercise of civil liberties.

In many countries, we still see the mandatory imposition of the death penalty, irreconcilable with fair trial standards.

Excellencies, dear colleagues,

Opponents to a death penalty moratorium say that the rights of victims risk being overlooked. They assert that retribution – claimed to be often demanded by families of victims - is the best response.

My questions are: where is the humanity in revenge? Are we not debasing our societies by depriving another human being of their lives?   

And how can we ensure that people convicted of crimes do not themselves become victims of unjust treatment at the hands of imperfect criminal justice systems? How do we avoid being complicit in injustice, perpetrating a cycle of violations?

Experts in criminal justice - drawing on experience worldwide - advise that the proper response lies in controlling and preventing crimes. 

That we must build functioning, human rights-based criminal justice systems that afford victims and survivors access to justice, redress and dignity.

 That we must hold perpetrators to account.

Today, I call on States that have not yet done so to take a strong lead, by restricting the use of the death penalty, by establishing moratoriums and working towards its abolition, especially at a time when we recall the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I welcome such steps, particularly during this 75th anniversary year of the Declaration, where we are all challenged to go the extra mile.

I also urge governments to collect, analyze and make available public data on its use and actual effectiveness.

Mr. President,

While we are seeing steps in the right direction from various countries, I reiterate that until every nation abolishes the death penalty, the road to defending human dignity will never be fully complete.

The General Assembly made history in December last year when a record 125 nations voted in favour of a resolution calling for a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty with a view towards its ultimate abolition.

That is a landmark, and sign of genuine advance. If we maintain this momentum to eradicate this inhumane punishment once and for all, we can weave a thread of dignity back into the fabric of our societies.

It is an urgent priority for my Office and the United Nations as a whole.

Thank you.