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Working towards a world without the death penalty

10 October 2011

“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,” said UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay in an opinion piece on the question of the death penalty.

“Abolishing the death penalty,” she said “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.”

Countries are working towards a world without the death penalty, according to a report (PDF) of the UN Secretary-General. Some States have substituted the death penalty by life imprisonment with the possibility of pardon or amnesty, conditional freedom or alternative means after having served at least 30 years of imprisonment. Even in countries where the application of the death penalty remains, there have been noticeable steps towards restricting its use.

About 140 of the 193 States Members of the UN have abolished the death penalty or introduced a moratorium either legally, or in practice, states the report.

However, only 73 States have so far ratified the Second Optional Protocol, which was added to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1989, with the aim of abolishing the punishment.

Ratifying the Protocol, which entered into force on 11 July 1991, “is a key step for States moving towards abolition,” said Mona Rishmawi, a senior official with the UN Human Rights Office.

“States which have ratified the Protocol have taken upon themselves not to execute anybody sentenced to death, to take all necessary steps to definitively abolish the death penalty, and to report on what they have done to this effect,” Rishmawi said, speaking at an event on the abolition of the death penalty . “In addition, they accept, as a legal obligation, not to extradite individuals to a country where they would face the death penalty, nor can they reintroduce it in their own.”

Rishmawi highlighted that while positive developments should be celebrated, “challenges remain.”

Those States that impose the death penalty must provide transparency in relation to the specifics of the processes and procedures under which it is imposed, said at the event Christoffel Heyns, the UN independent expert on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions.

“The death penalty is only lawful if imposed after a trial conducted in accordance with fair trial guarantees, including judicial independence, the right to counsel, an effective right to appeal, and the right not to be coerced or tortured to give evidence,” he said.

The event, titled, “Towards universal abolition of the death penalty” was organized in late September to mark the 20th anniversary of the entry into force of the Second Optional Protocol at the initiative of the Belgian Mission to the UN with the support of the UN Human Rights office and the World Coalition against the Death Penalty - an alliance of more than 120 NGOs, bar associations, local authorities and unions.

Abolishing the death penalty has been on the UN agenda for years.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the UN in 1966, permits the application of the death penalty in countries that “have not abolished” it only if it is imposed for “the most serious crimes”. Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence, which may be granted in all cases. Otherwise, its imposition will amount to an arbitrary deprivation of life by the State. Furthermore, sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women.

Ten years on, in 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (PDF) providing that throughout the world, it was desirable to "progressively restrict the number of offenses for which the death penalty might be imposed, with a view to the desirability of abolishing this punishment."

Principles related to the imposition of the death penalty were further elaborated in the Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of those Facing the Death Penalty, approved by the UN Economic and Social Council in 1984.

In recent years, the international community has continued its efforts towards the definitive abolition of the death penalty. In December 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (PDF) calling upon States to respect international standards that provide protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty and to progressively restrict its use and reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed.

10 October 2011