|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference by Human Rights Experts on Summary Executions,
Fewer States around the world now maintained the death penalty in their national laws, and even among those that did so, a smaller number were engaged in active executions, senior human rights officials said at a Headquarters press conference today.
As of last year, 21 States were actively executing, said Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, who was joined this afternoon by Olivier de Frouville, Chair of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and Emmanuel Decaux, Chair of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances. Mr. Heyns presented his annual report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) yesterday. (See Press Release GA/SHC/4047.)
An estimated 18,000 people were on death row around the world, Mr. Heyns continued, and added that: “This week has been a stark reminder of the reality of the death penalty.” Ten people had been executed in Iran, and it appeared that two people might be executed while their cases were still pending in Nigeria. There was also the possibility of continuing executions in countries such as the Gambia and the United States.
However, his latest report - which this year focused on the death penalty in the context of the right to life – had revealed an overall trend of decreasing use of capital punishment worldwide. About one State per year had been abandoning the practice for the past decade, and indeed, at the current pace, he said that experts estimated the death penalty, “for all practical purposes, to be a thing of the past” by 2026. Moreover, among those that still maintained the practice, many were adopting an “increasing respect for international standards”.
For example, very few States still executed minors under the age of 18, and there was a greater awareness — as set out in international legal norms - that the death penalty could be implemented only in cases involving “the most serious crimes”. That definition excluded crimes of an economic nature, self-expression and those that dealt with drug related offenses, he stressed.
As for other issues covered in his report, Mr. Heyns highlighted due process and safeguards; the use of forensic evidence; the importance of transparency; and the appropriate use of military tribunals, which it found should not have the power to implement the death penalty. It also dealt with the issue of the mandatory nature of the death penalty in some States, noting a trend away from such mandatory implementation.
Taking the floor next, Mr. Decaux described the work of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, a relatively new body charged with monitoring the implementation of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, a binding instrument adopted by the General Assembly in 2006. He said that the Committee, having finished its first two sessions, was still dealing with “manner more than matter”.
The Committee was tackling three major challenges. First, and foremost, he said: “We need universal ratification.” The Convention was a new instrument with 36 ratifications to date. Second was the challenge of effective implementation by States. The instrument was a sophisticated tool and involved legislation and rules of procedure, he said. A third challenge involved coordination, as the Committee was working to avoid duplication and gaps between itself and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
Olivier de Frouville, Chair of that group, briefly described its history and explained how the body differed from the Committee. The Working Group had been created in 1980 as a result of demand from victims themselves, he said, in particular in Latin America, where enforced disappearances had been a major problem. The notion behind it was to act as a direct channel of communication between families and Governments in situations where such a conduit was not available at the national level. The first cases had been generated by Latin American countries, but the Working Group quickly began to receive cases from all over the world. Over the course of its history, the body had received some 50,000 cases, of which about 42,000 were still before it.
Indeed, as opposed to the case of the Committee, which was binding only for States parties to the Convention, all United Nations Member States were obliged to “at least cooperate” with the Charter-based Working Group, he said. The Working Group had no new competence since the adoption of the Treaty.
Turning to the nature of enforced disappearance, he said that practice – along with torture and other intimidation methods – was used to terrorize populations. “This technique has been taught”, he added, noting that it was now a phenomenon present in many countries, and in most cases its use was thought to be systematic.
In addition, the many thousands of cases brought to the Working Group’s attention were “just the tip of the iceberg”, as many victims felt too threatened to come forward. The Group continued to deal with the matter in such contexts as conflict or other difficult situations, including in Mexico and Pakistan. It also worked with countries that were still trying to deal with the repercussions of enforced disappearances of the past. “You cannot just escape the reality [of a past disappearance]”, he stressed, adding that families “still want the truth”. Several prominent examples in that regard were Spain, Nepal, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The panelists responded to a number of questions, including one that focused on killings by United States unmanned drones in Yemen and other countries. To that issue, Mr. Heyns said that, next year, a full report would be submitted on the use of drones. They were not inherently illegal, he said. Instead, whether the use of drones was a violation of international law depended on the context of the situation; it became a concern if they were used “outside the theatre of war”. Indeed, from a right to life perspective, it was an issue which needed to be addressed, and would be.
Responding to a question about whether the Working Group’s mandate dealt with cases of kidnapping in Africa, Mr. de Frouville said that it did not. The body used a strict definition of enforced disappearances, defining them as cases where no information was provided about the whereabouts of those taken. The Working Group also did not look at enforced disappearances attributed to private groups, he said.
Asked how the numbers of executions he had mentioned had been arrived at, given inherent difficulties in reporting, Mr. Heyns agreed that it was difficult to say with technical precision that “zero” people in any particular country had been executed in a given year. However, he underlined the larger trend of decreasing executions over recent years.
Asked about what one correspondent called “decades-long” disappearances in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Mr. de Frouville described “very serious and credible” allegations that the number of people who had disappeared in camps in that country was in the thousands. How the Working Group would respond in the future was a matter of whether the country’s Government would be ready to cooperate with it. At the moment, there was very little communication, he said, adding that he hoped there would be some sort of platform or formula on which to move forward in the future.
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