The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in December 1948 recognises the right of all people to life (Article 3) and categorically states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In effect, capital punishment is the most extreme negation of human rights: it violates the right to life, the supreme right on which all other rights are based. It is the most cruel, degrading, and inhuman punishment. Moreover, it is frequently discriminatory, disproportionate, and arbitrary, and, worse, can be both unjust and mistaken.
The UN has established in various international pacts and conventions, strict conditions for the application of the death penalty in countries that have still not decided to abolish it.
As noted in last August’s Report of the UN Secretary-General, there has been steadily growing movement towards a worldwide abolition of the death penalty. At present over two-thirds of the countries of the world have abolished the sanction in either legislation or practice. The international community has approved four abolition treaties, one global, the other three regional.
The Statute of the International Criminal Court adopted in 1998 bars capital punishment despite the fact that it has jurisdiction over extremely severe crimes, including crimes against humanity like genocide and war crimes.
No proof of effect
There has never been convincing scientific evidence that executions are a more effective deterrent than other punishments. A 1988 UN study, updated in 1996 and 2002 concluded: “Research has not shown scientifically that executions are superior to life imprisonment in terms of deterrence, and it is improbable that it will in the future. Overall, there is no scientific support for the deterrence hypothesis.”
The death penalty is irreversible and no juridical system can avoid the condemnation of innocent people. As long as it is accepted as a legitimate form of punishment, there is a risk that it will by abused for political ends. Only abolition will guarantee that this will not occur.
In December 2007 and 2008, the UN General Assembly approved Resolutions 62/149 and 63/168, which called for a global moratorium against capital punishment. In the latter, all states that still had the death penalty were called upon to:
“Respect international norms establishing safeguards to guarantee the protection of the rights of those condemned to death, in particular minimum norms”;
“Progressively limit the application of the death penalty and reduce the number of crimes for which it can be applied”; and
“Establish a moratorium on executions with a view to the eventual abolition of the death penalty.”
In 2010 the UN General Assembly adopted a third resolution on the moratorium and the use of the death penalty, which won the support of a few new converts to the idea of abolition.
In order to speed up this process, in coordination with NGOs and with existing institutions of the UN at both the international and regional level, the International Commission Against the Death Penalty was founded recently with the backing of the Spanish government. I have the honour of presiding over this commission, which is comprised of prominent individuals and has the backing of other countries in favour of passing a general moratorium on the death penalty in 2015.
Human rights are indivisible and no state or individual can try to uphold some while violating others. It is especially important that the 36 states of the US that still have the death penalty reconsider the punishment. This would set an important example for other death-penalty countries.
One particular concern is China, because there is evidence, including documents, of serial executions, though, as is the case with other practices, the state furnishes no information whatsoever. It is unacceptable that a country that has become the ‘factory for the world’ and exerts massive financial influence as a result, does not respect the most elemental principles of transparency required by the ‘global village’. When certain dictators allege that the death penalty has ‘popular support’ it is because they have broadcast biased and unreliable information through the media.
We must all work together so that the horror of the death penalty soon disappear from the face of the earth. The day it does will be a brighter day for all people.