New York

29 September 2015

Secretary-General's message to High-Level Meeting on Moving Away from the Death Penalty: "The Voices of Victims' Families" [Delivered by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights]

Thank you all for participating in this important meeting on moving away from the death penalty. I especially welcome the victims’ families who are present. Your testimony is a powerful, compelling reminder of the imperative of ending the use of the death penalty.

The United Nations has just adopted a new vision for sustainable development that aims for a life of dignity for all people. With human rights at the core, the Sustainable Development Goals constitute a pledge by leaders to leave no one behind.

This resounding success should offer hope for ending of the use of the death penalty , which is discriminatory in practice, falling on the poor, the mentally ill and oppressed members of minority communities.

As we mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, we see progress on the death penalty. Seven decades ago, only 14 countries had abolished the practice. Today, 82 per cent have either introduced moratoria by law or in practice or have abolished it

The momentum continues to build. Over the past 12 months alone, Fiji, Madagascar, Suriname, and the state of Nebraska in the United States have abolished the practice of putting people to death. In Burkina Faso and the Republic of Korea, new abolition laws have been submitted to parliament. Togo has ratified the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which aims to abolish the death penalty. China has removed the death penalty for several categories of crimes. Legal bodies in India and Ghana have recommended abolition. And authorities in Afghanistan, Malaysia, Thailand and the United States have announced reviews of the fairness and accuracy of the processes that convict and execute people. 

But despite this overarching worldwide trend towards abolition, a small number of countries have increased or resumed executions in recent months. Frequently, these policies are justified by authorities invoking the rights of crime victims’ families. In reality, many murder victims’ families believe that responding to one killing with another does not honour the victim. Often, they conclude that the death penalty is profoundly harmful to their hopes of recovering from their loss, partly because of the long delays and repeated appeals that are involved. In diverse countries around the world, victims of appalling crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and terrorism, have campaigned for an end to the practice of legal killings.

The risk of irreparable error adds to the urgency of ending the use of the death penalty. . Human life is too precious to fall victim to failed policies. In just one recent example, two weeks ago Montez Spradley was released from the Alabama prison system after nine years in prison – three of them on death row – for a crime he never committed. When miscarriages of justice result in executions, the State becomes the killer.

The rights of victims and their families must absolutely be respected, including the right to see effective investigations and proper retribution for crimes and the right to demand redress for the harm suffered, through judicial and administrative mechanisms that are expeditious, responsive, fair, and accessible. This implies that all victims should be fully informed about such processes, which should be inexpensive and allow for the presentation of victims' views and concerns.

A life of dignity for all includes the dignity of victims and their families, who must be acknowledged by all law enforcement and judicial personnel with full compassion and respect. It is also paramount to secure the safety of victims, their families and witnesses from intimidation and reprisal.

The UN Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power clearly states these and other rights of victims of crime, and it outlines measures to secure them.

I call on States to do far more to realize these principles in practice.  And I urge all States and individuals to join the United Nations as we continue advocating for an end to the imposition of death penalty as part of our larger push for a more just and sustainable future.