On the 2014 world day against the death penalty, Ban Ki Moon made a strong statement calling for global abolition. This declaration reflects a growing trend toward abolition, and yet 25 years after the adoption of the international treaty to abolish the death penalty, the level of ratification remains too low.
The United Nations’ commitment to eradicate the death penalty globally is quite evident. High Commissioners for Human Rights have consistently been calling on States to abolish and ratify the second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR OP2), which provides the best guarantee for sustainable and categorical abolition. 2014 was a particularly active year of UN engagement against the death penalty: in June, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution which highlights abolition as a recurrent item of its work. In October, the OHCHR launched a specific webpage and a compilation of the most recent arguments and trends for global abolition. Two Special Rapporteurs, Christof Heyns and Juan Mendez, have also been quite vocal in calling for abolition. With 98 countries having abolished death penalty for all crimes, the global abolition movement has never looked so strong.
Despite these positive developments, the reality of the situation remains alarming in various ways:
- Only 81 states have ratified ICCPR OP2
- Several countries such as Indonesia or the Gambia have in recent years resumed executions after multiyear moratoriums
- The latest Amnesty International report on death penalty highlights a 15% increase in executions around the world compared to the previous year
- A small number of countries continue to hold the record for most executions carried out, namely China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia
Of these record executioners, Iran and Iraq, as well as another notorious executioner, the US, have ratified the ICCPR. That international treaty currently constitutes one of the most restrictive in regards to death penalty: it can only be applied for the most serious crimes and “pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court” (Art.6). Yet the ICCPR, which has been ratified by 167 countries, does not strictly prohibit the application of death penalty.
A new opportunity for the UN to move abolition forward
The UN Human Rights Committee (HR Ctte), almost systematically recommends ratification of the international treaty on abolition (OP2) in its concluding observations, but is has never done so in its views on individual complaints under OP1. None of the 42 individual complaints that were brought to the attention of the Committee with regards to death penalty prompted the expert body to recommend ratification of OP2. There are also noticeable exceptions to the recommendation to ratify OP2: for instance in the cases of Israel, Sri Lanka or China/Hong Kong where the Human Rights Committee did not recommend a ratification of that treaty.
The upcoming Human Rights Committee general comment on Art. 6 (Right to life) provides a new opportunity for the Committee to clarify its interpretation of the Covenant in favour of abolition, and to encourage or request ratification of OP2 as a related obligation under Art.6. In a 1982 General Comment, the Committee had already stated that Art.6 “refers generally to abolition in terms which strongly suggest … that abolition is desirable”. The current momentum for a global moratorium provides a good window of opportunity for the Committee to set the interpretation standard for Art.6 even higher.
Let us hope that the global movement of individuals and institutions speaking out against the death penalty will seize the opportunity of the upcoming ICCPR general comment, and use it to voice their views on how the ICCPR interpretation can be improved even further to favour abolition.