The United Nations and the Death Penalty

Screenshot 2016-01-05 at 3.03.46 PM
Jan. 5, 2016 – Ban Ki-moon’s statement on Saturday expressing dismay at the mass execution carried out in Saudi Arabia and his concerns over the nature of the charges and due process for those condemned elicited a terse response from Riyadh’s mission to the United Nations.

Ban, as well as the high commissioner and assistant high-commissioner for human rights, Zeid Hussein and Ivan Simonovic, have repeatedly called for states to abolish the death penalty. If they are to use it then they say the death penalty must only be used for crimes of murder or other forms of intentional killing following a fair and transparent process.

At this stage, there is nothing UN officials can do other than urge abolition because under international law there is no treaty or any other instrument that prohibits the use of the death penalty. The closest is an annual General Assembly resolution calling for states to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty with a view to abolishing it.

That resolution, which was first put to a vote in 2007, and is spearheaded by EU countries – particularly Italy and France – has been approved each year by some 100 of the UN’s 193 member states while around 40 countries consistently vote against it.

While General Assembly resolutions are not binding under international law, they are intended to express the will of the international community and can act as a persuasive force in creating international norms.

The text of the General Assembly resolution on establishing a moratorium also calls on states that retain the use of executions to limit the number of offenses for which the death penalty can be applied.

The call to limit the number of offenses is well-founded as at least seven states, including Saudi Arabia as well as Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China and Iran impose the death penalty for drug trafficking.

But it’s not just drug crimes that are punishable by death in some countries. Apostasy is considered a capital crime in both Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Yemen, there are some 360 crimes punishable by death including adultery and prostitution. In Morocco, there are more than 325 while in Egypt there are more than 40, and death sentences have increased there since the 2011 protests that led to the fall of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Indeed, it is Egypt, newly elected to the Security Council, that has led the fight back against the UNGA resolution, sending a letter to Ban Ki-moon on behalf of 47 countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, stating that “the Charter of the United Nations, in particular, Article 2, paragraph 7, clearly stipulates that nothing in the Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State. Accordingly, the question of whether to retain or abolish the death penalty and the types of crimes for which the death penalty is applied should be determined by each State.”

Despite the recalcitrance of some states, there is confidence that over time the death penalty will be abolished universally with the UN’s Simonovic noting recently that when the UN was founded only eight countries had taken the death penalty out of their laws while the figure is now 99, and only five states now execute more than 25 people per year – China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

Related Story: UN Official Cites Progress, Setbacks in Death Penalty Abolition

Croatia Pres. Protests to UNSC Over ICTY Release of Seselj

Vojislav_Šešelj in a photo provided by the ICTY

Vojislav Šešelj in a photo provided by the ICTY

Dec. 2, 2014 – Trust in the UN-backed court prosecuting crimes in the former Yugoslavia is being undermined by lengthy trials that fail to reach a conclusion and this has been compounded by the provisional release of a war crimes indictee who immediately resumed his ultra-nationalistic rhetoric.

These were among the complaints made by Croatia’s President Ivo Josipovic in a letter to Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council following the decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to release Vojislav Seselj.

Seselj was indicted by the court in 2003 on eight counts of crimes against humanity and six counts of war crimes for participating in a “joint criminal enterprise” whose aim was the “permanent forcible removal” of a majority of Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb populations from Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Vojvodina. He surrendered voluntarily to the court that year and was granted provisional release last month due to poor health.

“For the sake of justice and the trust of the general public, and in particular of the victims, in international justice, it is essential that each case end within a reasonable time frame with a court decision — a conviction or an acquittal,” Josipovic wrote in his letter to Ban and the Security Council.

“Too protracted court proceedings, as in the Šešelj case, undermine trust in international  law. The situation is even worse when, as in the Milošević case, the proceedings last so long that death thwarts the conviction. Such cases defeat the cause of justice and international law and result in the loss of citizens’ trust in the international administration of justice,” he added in the letter which was released by the UN on Tuesday.

After his release, Seselj told reporters that the idea of a Greater Serbia would not be abandoned.

The ICTY was established by Security Council Resolution 827 in 1993. The budget for the court, which is borne by UN member states, was $251 million for 2012/13 and the total cost for the tribunal since its inception until when it will shut down in 2016 is estimated at $2 billion.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz