The continuing application of the death penalty is a “cruel practice” that undermines human dignity, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as he urged Member States to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights” and impose moratoriums on executions.
In a video message issued to an event that took place yesterday at the UN Office in Geneva to mark the annual observance of the World Day against the Death Penalty, the Secretary-General noted that an increasing number of States from all regions of the world had acknowledged the failure of capital punishment as a means to exact justice.
The death penalty, Mr. Ban said, does not deter crimes more than any other punishment and its abolition or moratorium can contribute “to the enhancement and progressive development of human rights.”
“The taking of life is too irreversible for one human being to inflict it on another,” he continued. “We must continue to argue strongly that the death penalty is unjust and incompatible with fundamental human rights.”
The event in Geneva also marked the European release of a new publication produced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), entitled Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends and Perspectives, which places particular focus on the political leadership required to move away from capital punishment.
Recently, Equatorial Guinea, Pakistan, and the states of Washington, Maryland and Connecticut in the United States decided to establish a moratorium or suspend executions while last April, El Salvador, Gabon and Poland acceded to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – an international agreement aimed at abolition. These countries join more than 160 other Members States who have already either eliminated capital punishment or do not practice it.
Also to mark the occasion, 13 UN member States signed an appeal to “jointly call for a world which respects human dignity.” In the joint appeal, the first ever launched by Foreign Ministers of both abolitionist and non-abolitionist States, the countries stress that while they respect the views of those who still support the use of the death penalty, they “consider that State executions should not be taking place in the 21st century. Modern justice systems must aspire to more than retribution.”
In a separate message delivered yesterday, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović, celebrated the overall trend towards abolition, adding that support for abolition resonated across regions, legal systems, traditions, customs and religious backgrounds.
But, he noted, amid all the successes there have also been setbacks with some States resuming executions after decades and others reintroducing it for certain offences.
“In 2013, after many years of slow, but consistent moving away from the death penalty, we have had a 12 per cent increase in the number of executions when compared to 2012, and the number of executing states increased by one,” Mr. Šimonović told those gathered.
“Exactly for this reason, we need to continue our advocacy for the universal abolition of the death penalty.”
The Assistant Secretary-General highlighted three specific reasons for abolition which he said were clearly delineated in the OHCHR publication, such as the need to avoid executing those subjected to wrongful convictions; the lack of statistical evidence pointing to the death penalty as a useful deterrent; and the higher rate of execution among those from marginalized communities, including people with mental or intellectual disabilities.
He added that while some advocated capital punishment as retribution, research appeared to show the exact opposite – victims and their families “do not want revenge but prefer justice without revenge or retribution.”
“I strongly believe that one day, people will look back and wonder how it was possible that the death penalty ever existed—just like, in most societies today, it is already hard to understand how slavery could ever have been allowed,” Mr. Šimonović concluded.
“I hope that ‘one day’ is not far away from us. Abolition will undoubtedly enhance the rights of all humankind, starting with our most sacred right of all, the right to life.”