Interview with Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović

Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

24 September 2014 – Amid the flurry of events taking place during the opening of the General Assembly’s annual ministerial segment, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has organized a high-level event intended to inform discussion among Member States, with a particular focus on political leadership required to move away from the death penalty.

The event, which will be held on 25 September, will be moderated by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović, who assumed his post in 2010, heading up OHCHR’s Office in New York.

Before joining the UN, Mr. Šimonović, a former law professor at Zagreb University, held the position of Minister of Justice of Croatia. Previously he was Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, where he served as Senior Vice-President and President of the Economic and Social Council from 2001 to 2003.

A strong advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, Mr. Šimonović has said, “In the 21The death penalty [is] considered to be inhuman punishment... it has no proven deterring century, the right to take someone’s life is not a part of the social contract between citizens and a State any more…” Ahead of the high-level event at Headquarters, he shared his views on the issue with the UN News Centre .

UN News Centre: At the high-level event, the Office of the High Commissioner will launch a new publication called Moving away from the Death Penalty, Arguments, Trends and Perspectives. Let us start with arguments: why should the death penalty be abolished?

Ivan Šimonović: First, wrongful convictions. No legal system is immune to mistakes, and if you execute people, then this is too final to be acceptable. Second, there was a matter of deterrence. I’m saying there “was” because now there is sufficient scientific evidence to conclude that there is no reliable evidence that there is any deterring effect of the death penalty.

Then, it is the issue of discrimination. Who is being executed? It’s usually marginalized groups. Literally all executed are poor, most are either minorities – national minorities, migrants – and in that sense, there is no justice when applying the death penalty.

Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonovic greeting residents of Kamako in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo: MONUSCO/Myriam Asmani

Now sometimes it’s raised that you need it as a justice for victims, for their families. However, in practice, it doesn’t look that way. Many victims do not want revenge but prefer reconciliation. And the ones who want revenge do not really get it because if you want to avoid mistakes and miscarriages of justice those are long, long, long proceedings and in the end, very few people get executed in most systems. For example, here in the United States, out of intentional homicides, less than one per cent [of perpetrators] end up being executed. So if you want revenge, 99 per cent of victims and victims’ families end up frustrated.

And finally, there is a human rights argument that the development of human rights reduced sovereign rights of the States in contemporary democratic societies so that they are not entitled to torture or to humiliate its citizens. I think that the time has come that the death penalty is not acceptable from a human rights perspective.

UN News Centre: What are some of the obstacles to abolishing this type of punishment within Member States?

Ivan Šimonović: Some Member States have been insisting on the death penalty for their own specific reasons. Some think they need it to fight terrorism or to fight drug trafficking. However, [I repeat], there is no conclusive evidence of any deterring effects of the death penalty. From some Member States, you would hear that public opinion is in favour of the death penalty. But that’s the question of leadership.

And therefore, we will be having on 25 September an event in which we will have three presidents – three great leaders – who have done a lot to move away from the death penalty. We will have Benin, the African champion of moving away from the death penalty. We will have Mongolia, a country that abolished the death penalty on the initiative of the President, who will be attending the panel. And the same applies for the President of Tunisia, who will be participating in this presidential family.

Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonovic (right) visits Bentiu and Bor in South Sudan. Photo: UNMISS/Patrick Morrison

By the way, the book will be launched by the High Commission for Human Rights, as well as the Prime Minster of Italy, who is at the same time President of the European Council.

UN News Centre: Will any of the representatives from countries still practicing the death penalty attend that event or will you be ‘preaching to the choir’?

Ivan Šimonović: Let’s wait and see. I hope they will be there. I think the fact that we will be having a cross-regional group of presidents who want to share with their colleagues – top level Heads of State and Government and Ministers – the way that they have managed to abolish the death penalty in their countries is very important. It’s sort of peer experience. And by the way, this is the highest level death penalty event ever held.

UN News Centre: There is now a trend towards abolishing the death penalty? Why do you think that is?

Ivan Šimonović: You are quite right. When we compare the situation of the Second World War, when we had just eight countries that abolished the death penalty, to the situation today where we have 98 countries that have abolished the death penalty in law and 160 countries that have abolished it either in law or in practice, you see what the trend looks like. It’s moving away from the death penalty. It’s considered to be inhuman punishment. It’s considered a violation of human rights and there are no practical reasons – it has no proven deterring effect.

Literally all [those] executed are poor. Most are either minorities – national minorities, migrants – and in that sense, there is no justice when applying the death penalty.

The argument that you save money by using the death penalty can be used only if you do not have sophisticated legal proceedings to challenge the death penalty. For example, in the United States, it is much more expensive to carry out the death penalty than life without parole. So that argument also doesn’t hold.

However, despite the wonderful trends, there are reasons to be concerned. In 2013, after many years of moving away from the death penalty, the number of countries that were executing increased – it was 22 of them; in 2012, it was 21 – and there were more people executed than the previous year, at least we speak about the register of executions. There are some countries that are executing without making that data available.

Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonovic presents report in Kyiv. UN Photo/Victoria Andrievska

However, the number of recorded executions, when we compare 2013 to 2012, has increased by 12 per cent. Now we are speaking about close to 800 and it was close to 700 the previous year. So after a long positive trend, now we see a backlash. It is part of a backlash that we see in various areas: in the economic area, we had a recession; in the security area, we had a mushrooming of conflicts. Let us not allow the positive trend of the death penalty to be interrupted.

UN News Centre: In your career as a lawyer and a Justice Minister, did you have any personal experience related to death penalty?

Ivan Šimonović: When I became a Justice Minister, there was no longer a death penalty in Croatia, so I couldn’t do anything about it, just…be happy that it happened earlier. However much earlier, as a high school student, I did my graduation work on the death penalty, arguing for its abolition and it was a time when my former country, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was practicing the death penalty.

At the time, there was information on the death penalty. I do not recollect the details because it was years ago when I was graduating, but there were of course, like in every society, some question marks about the death penalty – including that [it] disproportionately affects marginalized groups.

UN News Centre: Have the efforts made by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in recent years yielded change regarding attitudes about the death penalty?

Ivan Šimonović: We hope that we contribute. We cannot measure our effects. During the last two years, we organized six panels on moving away from the death penalty devoted to wrongful convictions; to deterrence effects or lack of them; to discrimination and the death penalty; and to the importance of leadership in moving away from the death penalty.

Assistant Secretary-General Ivan Šimonovic speaks to journalists at a press conference on the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

The book that we are launching on the 25th gathers contributions made during those panels. The articles were written by experts, as well as civil society, activists and victims themselves, as well as two persons who were wrongfully convicted and after many years on death row the DNA analysis – a new progressive technique – helped to establish their innocence. And there are many innocent people who are being convicted to the death penalty.

We shall see whether all of those efforts, including this major one, will bring some success quite soon because there will be here in New York [at the UN General Assembly] a vote on a resolution moving away from the death penalty that will take place in November. So let’s see whether we contributed in preventing that trend of getting back to the death penalty.

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