World must continue to strive for abolition of death penalty, says senior UN official

UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

9 October 2014 – As long as the death penalty exists, there will be a need to advocate against it, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović, declared today at the launch of a new United Nations publication aimed at raising awareness on the abolition of capital punishment.

Speaking at the Geneva presentation of Moving away from the Death Penalty, Arguments, Trends and Perspectives, released by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Assistant Secretary-General celebrated what he said was “worldwide accelerating progress” made towards abolition since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Back then, 66 years ago, only 14 countries had abolished the death penalty, the majority in South America,” Mr. Šimonović explained, adding that currently around 160 countries around the world had abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.

“The support for abolition resonates across regions, legal systems, traditions, customs and religious backgrounds,” he continued. “Year after year, more countries are turning away from the death penalty.”

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 the more than 160 other Members States who have already either eliminated capital punishment or do not practice it.

But, noted Mr. Šimonović, 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,” he 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.”

“Victims want to be heard; to share their recounts of loss and grief but also ways in which they have begun to recover some equilibrium in their lives and ways to honour the memory of their lost family members,” the Assistant Secretary-General said, adding that “one day” people will look back and wonder how it was possible that the death penalty had ever existed in the first place.

“I hope that ‘one day’ is not far away from us,” Mr. Šimonović concluded. “Abolition will undoubtedly enhance the rights of all humankind, starting with our most sacred right of all, the right to life.”


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