According to recent figures from Amnesty International, at least 1,634 executions took place worldwide last year—the highest reported number in more than 25 years. Given the secrecy surrounding many cases, the true global total may be much higher. But with an overall trend towards universal abolition of the death penalty, the majority of these executions are increasingly concentrated among a small number of states. Over 70% of states have now abolished the death penalty either in law, or in practice, while international and regional standards restricting its use have continued to develop.
Despite long-term progress towards abolition, where death sentences continue to be imposed, this has grave impacts not only for the accused, but also for a wider network of individuals who also face harm. Past research from Penal Reform International, for example, has documented the negative impacts on lawyers defending those facing execution, and on prison guards working on death row. Some of the most vulnerable of those affected are children whose parents are sentenced to death or executed.
The children of parents sentenced to death or executed have been referred to as the ‘invisible’ or ‘forgotten’ victims of the death penalty, whose experiences are often overlooked and whose rights are rarely considered in criminal justice processes. When a parent is sentenced to death, this sentence has profound impacts on their children. There is an emerging body of research exploring these intergenerational impacts, linked with studies into the issue of parental incarceration.
This group of children face many issues, some of which are similar to those affecting children of incarcerated parents. These include the increased risk of mental health problems, with the witnessing of the arrest of a parent, particularly linked to later trauma symptoms. The absence of a parent can limit family income, affecting the child’s standard of living, and access to services such as education and healthcare. The maintenance of a relationship with one’s parent, where appropriate, has been found to mitigate some of these harmful effects.
Other problems are unique to those children whose parents face the death penalty. Where a parent is incarcerated on death row, the looming threat of execution can prolong and exacerbate issues. If executions do take place, this permanently deprives the child of the parental relationship, and itself has been found to cause specific traumas. The psychological and emotional impacts of parental death sentence and execution may be exacerbated by social stigma, and by insufficient provision of information to the family of the accused.
Some of these issues constitute violations of the rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Most prominently, given the associated impacts, the imposition of the death penalty on a parent may constitute a violation of States’ obligations to protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence under Article 19 of the CRC. Meanwhile, Article 3 of the CRC requires that the best interests of the child are a primary consideration in all decision-making affecting them, including those relating to their parents.
The rights of affected children have been addressed by a number of international human rights bodies. In 2013, resolutions at both the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council made direct reference to the rights of children of parents sentenced to death or executed. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has also drawn attention to the issue in questions and concluding observations at past sessions. At one state’s review in 2015, the Committee expressed concerns about “the impact on children where the death penalty is imposed on their parents and the lack of attention paid to providing psychological support for such children”.
In order to prevent further rights violations, it is essential for states which have not yet done so to proceed with the abolition of the death penalty both in law and practice. As this takes place, moratoria should be put in place to stop new sentences, and existing sentences should be commuted. Where the death penalty is not yet abolished, the best interests of the child should be taken as a primary consideration in all decision-making, including in sentencing decisions. As momentum towards a world free from capital punishment continues, full recognition of these children’s rights is essential to ensure that they are no longer invisible, or forgotten.
The sixth World Congress against the Death Penalty will take place in Oslo from 21-23 June 2016.