25 February | 2024

Lahore, Pakistan

UN human rights chief calls on all nations to abolish death penalty

Justice Project Pakistan head Sarah Belal says nearly 4,000 people are on ‘death row’ in 30 current capital offences

NEW YORK/GENEVA: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk asked all nations to work harder towards abolishing the death penalty, an ongoing practice in 79 countries.

He was speaking at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council which held its biennial high-level panel discussion on the question of the death penalty. The theme of this year’s panel was human rights violations relating to the use of the death penalty, in particular with respect to limiting the death penalty to the most serious crimes.

Volker Turk said that this was ultimately about the UN Charter’s promise of the highest standards of protection of all human beings, in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which marks its 75th anniversary this year. “Opponents say that the rights of victims risk being overlooked; they assert that retribution is the best response,” he said, wondering aloud where humanity lays in revenge.

“Are we not debasing our societies by depriving another human being of their lives?” Experts in criminal justice, drawing on experience worldwide, advise that the proper response rests in controlling and preventing crimes, he said. They recommend building functioning, human rights-based criminal justice systems that ensure accountability for perpetrators and afford victims and survivors access to justice, redress, and dignity.

He also urged governments to collect, analyze, and make available public data on its use and actual effectiveness. Achievements towards the goal of abolishing capital punishment can be seen across different regions of the world, the UN rights chief said.

Sarah Belal, who heads the non-governmental organization Justice Project Pakistan, noted that nearly 4,000 people are on ‘death row’ there, relating to 30 current capital offences, saying that every country’s journey towards abolition or compliance with international standards is tethered to their own sociocultural context.

When Pakistan lifted its seven-year death penalty moratorium in 2014 following a devastating terrorist attack, 325 people on death row were executed in 2015, she said. However, years of strategic advocacy and increased engagement with human rights law raised the political cost of executions, she said, noting that no executions have been conducted since 2019.

Idrissa Sow, who chairs the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ working group on the issue, said the African Union was considering a draft protocol to the Charter on the Abolition of the Death Penalty. As many as 26 nations have totally abolished the practice and 14 others were applying moratoria, he said.

“Despite all efforts made, the death penalty continued to be pronounced on the African continent, with clear risks of judicial error,” he said, noting that more than half of all African nations still implement capital punishment. To address that, he underlined a need to develop partnerships with other national and global institutions to move towards universal abolition.

Malaysia’s Minister for Law and Institutional Reform Azalina Othman said that their government was moving towards abolishing its mandatory death penalty. “While the death penalty itself was not completely abolished, the abolition of the mandatory death penalty was a balance between what was right and wrong,” she said.

Mai Sato, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law at Monash University in Australia, said that only two of the 79 countries implementing the death penalty adhere to international standards restricting the practice to the most serious crimes. Yet, the remaining 77 countries failed to meet the most serious standard, she said, with 11 nations implementing the death penalty for capital offences.

Following the panel presentations, speakers raised divergent views. Highlighting the lack of consensus on the issue, some delegates reiterated that there is no international law prohibiting capital punishment. Calling for respect of cultural particularities and religious beliefs of all, some delegates said all states have the right to determine their own legislation.