The United Nations and the Death Penalty

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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

UN General Assembly Debate – Day 2 Wrap

Petro Poroshenko addressing the UN General Assembly, Spet. 29, 2015 UN Photo)

Petro Poroshenko addressing the UN General Assembly, Sept. 29, 2015 UN Photo)

Sept. 29, 2015 – Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday responded to Vladimir Putin’s speech on Monday by telling delegates that, “Over the last few days we have heard conciliatory statements from the Russian side in which, in particular, it called for the establishment of anti-terrorist coalition, or warned of danger to flirt with terrorists.”

“Cool story, but really hard to believe,” Poroshenko continued. “How can you urge an anti-terrorist coalition – if you inspire terrorism right in front of your door? How can you talk about peace and legitimacy – if your policy is war via puppet governments? How can you speak of freedom for nations – if you punish your neighbor for his choice? How can you demand respect for all – if you don’t have respect for anyone?”

He added that Russia “shamefully” used its veto twice to block Security Council resolutions related to Ukraine, the first in March 2014 that would have condemned the Crimea referendum and, more recently, a resolution that called for establishing an international criminal investigation into the downing of Flight MH17.

Ukraine is set to join the Council as a non-permanent member for a two year term beginning in Jan. 1, 2016.

Speaking later on Tuesday, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his country, one of the top humanitarian donors to the UN system, would step up its funding for refugees and internally displaced people from Syria and Iraq. The funding would not only go to neighboring countries hosting the vast majority of refugees, but also to countries on Europe’s borders, particularly Serbia and Macedonia.

He also expressed frustration at the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament, noting that this year marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Abe called for continuing reductions in Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals, as well as all other countries that possess these weapons.

Also speaking on Tuesday was Liberia’s President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson who said progress towards gender equality was well behind schedule. She noted that only a few of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representatives were women, that only one woman had ever served as president of the General Assembly, and that there had never been a female secretary-general.

Johnson said the response to the Ebola crisis in her country, as well as in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, which she called the “greatest modern threat to global public health” showed that the promise of the United Nations works when we “find it within our humanity to respond even to unknown enemies to our collective progress” and she thanked Ban Ki-moon as well as other international organizations for mobilizing their response to fight Ebola.

At a side event on Tuesday, foreign ministers from Argentina, Benin, Fiji, Italy and Rwanda spoke for the need to work towards global abolition of the death penalty.

Also speaking was human rights high commissioner Zeid Hussein and US campaigner Sister Helen Prejean. Zeid noted that 82 percent of UN member states have either introduced a moratorium or have abolished the death penalty. In the past twelve months, Fiji, Madagascar, Suriname and the U.S. state of Nebraska have abolished the practice.

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Sister Helen, who had to leave the event early as she is actively campaigning for a stay on the execution in Oklahoma of Richard Glossip, who the U.S. state is set to execute tomorrow. She said after witnessing her first execution in Alabama, she vomited. She then decided that she needed to educate the American public about the cruelty of the death penalty. In the course of her campaigning she met many victims families – those whose killer was executed – and discovered that, for many, they are hidden victims of the death penalty. “Don’t kill for us,” she quoted victims families as saying. She called it revictimization.

Sister Helen noted the racial disparities among those on death row, saying that in the U.S. when a person of color is put to death it is negligible and that while there’s a perception that the US has the best justice system in the world, 150 people on death row have been exonerated, while others who have been innocent have been put to death.

At least 11 countries have applied the death penalty in 2015: Afghanistan, Chad, China, Indonesia, India, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and the United States.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

UN Rights Official Cites Progress, Setbacks in Death Penalty Abolition

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March 4, 2015 –  A senior UN human rights official on Wednesday said the number of countries that have abolished the death penalty is at a record high but executing countries are increasing the frequency of its use.

UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, in an address to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, said that some 160 countries have abolished, either legally or in practice, the use of the death penalty.

“In the last six months, the death penalty was abolished in Chad, Fiji and Madagascar,” he said. “However, despite this progress, there remain challenges: while we are seeing movement towards abolishing the death penalty in some countries, elsewhere, we are seeing moves towards its preservation, or even reintroduction.”

Ivanovic told the Council that despite the record number of abolitionist countries the number of states executing and the number of executions increased from 2012 to 2013.

More than 50 countries still retain the death penalty and it was used by 22 countries in 2013, resulting in a 15 percent rise in the number of people executed from 2012. Indonesia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Viet Nam resumed the death penalty in 2013.

In all, some 778 people were executed in 2013, according to Amnesty International, excluding China where the death penalty is regarded as a state secret and reliable figures are not available.

Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were responsible for more than three-quarters of reported executions while the US remained the only country in the Americas to use the death penalty, with the majority of executions taking place in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Arizona. Eighteen of the 50 US states have abolished the death penalty.

Ivanovic noted that some countries still retain the death penalty for drug offenses, “with the argument that this harsh punishment is needed for deterrence purposes. However, there is no evidence that the death penalty deters any crime,” he said.

China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Singapore are among the countries that execute persons convicted of drug offenses.

Regionally, Europe and the Americas are tops for death penalty abolition while only eleven of 54 African countries use the death penalty. Sudan is Africa’s leading executioner.

All countries in the Middle East and North Africa retain the death penalty but some countries, such as Algeria, Mauritania and Qatar effectively have a moratorium on its use, while Israel has only ever executed one person, Adolf Eichmann, who was hanged in 1962 for war crimes.

Eight countries have applied the death penalty so far in 2015 with more than 100 of the 192 executions occurring in Iran alone. Of the 192 people executed in the eight countries this year, nine were women.

The other countries where executions have taken place in 2015 are Afghanistan, China, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

UN Human Rights Office Welcomes Supreme Court Decision on Death Penalty

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May 30, 2014 – The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday called on US authorities to put a moratorium on executions following a Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty and people with intellectual disabilities.

The Court on Tuesday struck down Florida’s requirement that defendants facing execution show an IQ test score of 70 or below before being permitted to submit additional evidence regarding their intellectual disability.

In a 5-4 ruling the majority stated in the case of Freddie Lee Hall, a man with an IQ of 71 who killed a pregnant newlywed in 1978, that “intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”

“The ruling will affect not only Florida, which is the state with the second-largest number of people on death row after California, but also other states that still use the death penalty in the US,” Navi Pillay’s office said on Friday. ” Judges will now be required to take a less mechanical approach to mental disability in capital cases.”

There are currently 32 US states where the death penalty is on the books. So far in 2014, there have been 20 executions in five states.

Worldwide, some 93 countries still retain the death penalty but 49 of these countries have not applied it in the past ten years.

A UN General Assembly resolution in December 2012 calling on Member States to establish moratoria on executions “with a view to abolishing the death penalty” passed with 111 states in favor, 41 against and 39 abstentions.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image/Wikimedia

Amnesty: 21 Countries Used the Death Penalty Last Year

April 9, 2013 – China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States were the world’s top executioners last year, according to Amnesty International’s annual review of the use of the death penalty.

The organization recorded 682 executions in 21 countries in 2012, virtually unchanged from 2011, when it recorded 680 executions in 21 countries. The figures do not include the estimated thousands of executions carried out in China, which does not publicly release information on its use of the death penalty.

A U.N. push to end the death penalty seems to be gaining traction with no executions recorded in 174 of the U.N.’s 193 member states (the two U.N. non-member states that carried out executions last year were Palestine and Taiwan). 

A General Assembly vote in November 2012 on putting a moratorium on the death penalty passed by a vote of 110 in favor, 39 against and 36 abstentions, a slight improvement from the same vote in 2010 and six more in favor than in a 2007 vote. A diplomat involved with the text said the aim is now to encourage states that have declared a moratorium to abolish executions, citing strong progress in Africa on ending the death penalty.

The U.S. is the only country in the Americas to still use the death penalty, carrying out 43 executions last year, the same as in 2011, but in only nine states, compared to 13 in 2011. There are 3,170 people still on death row in the U.S., according to Amnesty.

Belarus is the only country in Europe to still use the death penalty, carrying out at least three executions last year.

At least 557 executions were carried out in Middle East countries last year. Iran put 314 people to death in 2012; Iraq, 129; and Saudi Arabia, 79. Yemen, where a minimum of 28 people were executed last year, was the sixth biggest executioner in 2012. Those four countries accounted for 99 percent of all executions in the region last year.

Japan, seven executions last year, and the U.S. are the only G8 countries to still apply the death penalty. In Japan, as well as Belarus, prisoners were not informed of their forthcoming execution, nor were their families or lawyers, according to the Amnesty report.

Hanging remains the most commonly used method of execution followed by shooting. The U.S. and China both use lethal injection while Saudi Arabia still practices beheading, often in public.

The Amnesty report is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald