United Nations and the abolition of the death penalty

UN Photo of prison by Martine PerretUN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remark that “The death penalty has no place in the 21st century.” reflects the global trend away from capital punishment. More and more Member States from all regions acknowledge that the death penalty undermines human dignity, and that its abolition, or at least a moratorium on its use, contributes to the enhancement and progressive development of human rights.

More than 160 Members States of the United Nations with a variety of legal systems, traditions, cultures and religious backgrounds, have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it. Yet, prisoners in a number of countries continue to face execution.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with its mandate to promote and protect all human rights, advocates for the universal abolition of the death penalty. The UN Human Rights Office argues this position for other reasons as well, including the fundamental nature of the right to life; the unacceptable risk of executing innocent people; and the absence of proof that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime.

In line with General Assembly resolutions calling for a phasing out of capital punishment , the UN Human Rights Office supports Member States, civil society and other stakeholders campaigning for a  moratorium on the death penalty and ultimately  its abolition  worldwide.

The international framework
From the early 1960s, although a majority of countries still used the death penalty, the draftees of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) had already begun moves for its abolition in international law.

Although Article 6 of the ICCPR permits the use of the death penalty in limited circumstances, it also provides that “nothing in this article shall be invoked to delay or to prevent the abolition of capital punishment by any State Party to the present Covenant.”

  • Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty
    In 1984, the UN Economic and Social Council adopted Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty.
  • Second Optional Protocol to ICCPR, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty
    In 1989, 33 years after the adoption of the Covenant itself, the UN General Assembly adopted the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR that gave abolition decisive new momentum. Member States which became parties to the Protocol agreed not to execute anyone within their jurisdictions.
  • UN General Assembly resolutions
    In a series of four resolutions adopted in 2007, 20082010 and 2012, the General Assembly urged States to respect international standards that protect the rights of those facing the death penalty, to progressively restrict its use and reduce the number of offences which are punishable by death.

Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Lessons in South East Asia
In March 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Office for South East Asia (OHCHR) released a report (PDF) on death penalty in South East Asia. The report provides an extensive review of global trends in the application of the death penalty, a summary of the applicable international legal standards, and the current status of legislative reform related to the death penalty in the region.

This publication comes at an important juncture where the region appears to follow global trends in ‘moving away’ from capital punishment while facing complex challenges, such as the application of death penalty for drug-related crimes and pressures to return to executions after periods of moratorium. Some States are fully abolitionist (Cambodia, Timor Leste, and the Philippines), others are abolitionist in practice (Brunei Darussalam, Lao PDR, Myanmar), while others have an unofficial moratorium in place (Thailand). Some are undertaking efforts to reduce the numbers of executions and other reforms (Singapore, Malaysia), while in others, the direction seems more uncertain (Indonesia, Vietnam). As stated by Professor William Schabas: “Fundamentally, it is a positive picture of progress and one consistent with the worldwide trend. The continuation of this trajectory should be encouraged so this region may eventually be free of capital punishment.”

The publication is based on a number of years of work of the OHCHR Regional Office for South-East Asia. The Office collaborated with the Ministry of Justice in Thailand to organize an Expert Seminar on “Moving Away from the Death Penalty in South-East Asia” in Bangkok on 22 – 23 October 2013. Participants laid the ground for establishing a forum for intra-regional exchange between key stakeholders on international and regional law and practice regarding the death penalty. As a follow-up to that meeting, the Indonesian Representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) organized with OHCHR its Third Jakarta Human Rights Dialogue on “The Right to Life and Moratorium on the Use of the Death Penalty” in Jakarta on 10 – 11 November 2014.

Both events had participants from Governments, AICHR, national human rights institutions, non-governmental organizations, as well as international experts, lawyers, and academia from the region. “We hope this publication can be a resource for further discussions in the region and help to establish moratoria on the use of death penalty and ultimately its abolition,.” noted Matilda Bogner, the Regional Representative of the OHCHR Regional Office for South East Asia.

Download the full report (PDF) and the official press release (PDF).

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