A world without executions

Louise Arbour is the United Nations high commissioner for human rights

When the U.N. General Assembly called Tuesday for a worldwide moratorium on the application of the death penalty, it took a significant step toward the definitive abolition of capital punishment, a move that would enhance the protection of human rights and the inviolability of the person.

This sentiment finds echoes in every region of the world. According to Amnesty International, no fewer than 133 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. And that trend continues. Last July, Rwanda, a country that has suffered the ultimate crime of genocide and whose people’s thirst for justice is far from quenched, decided to forgo the sanction of capital punishment. In so doing, Rwanda has given a powerful endorsement of the importance of pursuing justice while repudiating violence to attain it.

Despite these developments, and despite the fact that a small group of countries -- China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and the United States -- reportedly accounted for 91% of the executions in 2006, the death penalty is practiced in too many places. Regrettably, some nations that had effectively applied a moratorium on executions, such as Afghanistan, have recently resumed them -- despite serious doubts about the death penalty’s supposed deterrent effect on criminality, despite the danger of errors in its application and despite the irreparable consequences of such errors.

The death penalty must always be regarded as an extreme exception to the fundamental right to life -- which is protected under international law -- and, as such, must be interpreted in the most restrictive manner. Accordingly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides for very specific conditions under which it may be imposed. In particular, it states that capital punishment may be meted out only in the face of the most serious crimes, and only after trial and appeal proceedings that scrupulously respect all the principles of due process. In addition, the death penalty should always be administered in accordance with laws in force at the time of the commission of the crime. Minors and pregnant women must be spared. Capital punishment can neither be mandatory nor carried out in secret. And the methods of execution must meet standards of the least possible physical and mental suffering.


All too often, however, the death penalty is applied in ways that violate international norms, including prohibitions on torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as anti-discrimination standards.

This is the case, for example, in Iran with regard to the reported executions of people who were minors when the alleged crime was committed or the stoning of offenders. Japan recently executed a 75-year-old man and, most worryingly, practices executions in secret and without forewarning to those to be executed and their families. Studies show that the death penalty is applied disproportionately to poor people in many societies. Vulnerable groups, such as migrant workers, as well as racial, ethnic or unpopular minorities, are also often at risk.

It is therefore encouraging that higher courts and legislatures in some countries that allow the death penalty are reviewing the methods and scope of capital punishment. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has barred execution of minors and is reexamining the use of lethal injection. At the state level this week, New Jersey abolished the death penalty, becoming the first state to do so in more than 40 years. In China, a review by the Supreme People’s Court has reportedly led to some reduction in the high rate of executions. In Iran, the judiciary has ordered a moratorium on stoning, although this needs to be consistently enforced.

For its part, the United Nations has long advocated abolition of the death penalty or, at a minimum and in the interim, restrictions on its use, including moratoriums. Thus, the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, both established by the Security Council, do not provide for capital punishment. The International Criminal Court and all U.N.-supported tribunals have adopted a similar stance.

If the General Assembly’s call for a global moratorium is an additional and crucial stepping stone in the natural progression toward abolishing the death penalty altogether, the heart of the matter now and in the future remains in the actual implementation of this vital pledge. Ultimately, it is through example that more countries may be persuaded to join the consensus and abandon the abhorrent practice of capital punishment.