Sommaire: 3 July 2012, New York - The OHCHR Global Panel on "Moving away from the death penalty- Lessons from national experience" was a well-attended and highly successful event, triggering an interesting debate among diverse participants. The EU was pleased to join the event and to contribute to the discussions.
Both Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner Navi Pillay addressed the meeting and welcomed a constructive and fruitful debate ahead of this year's GA resolution.
The event featured two thematic panels on the experiences of states that have recently abolished the death penalty and on the current situation in states still retaining it. The panellist came from both abolitionist and retentionist countries and shared their experiences from their work towards abolition. The first panel was chaired by ASG Simonovic and the second panel by the UNSR Heyns on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
Among the speakers there were representatives from public institutions and civil society organizations such as the International Commission against Death Penalty, Amnesty International and the Innocence Project. During open discussion numerous delegations and members of civil society took the floor to make constructive and forward-looking interventions.
Panel I - "Experiences of Members States on the abolition of the death penalty"
The first panel focused on countries where abolition has been achieved or a moratorium is in place. For the former, Guatemala has a de facto moratorium, which arises from non compliance of national death penalty legislation with Guatemala's international commitments, in particular, the Pacto de San Jose and Inter American Human Rights System. In this regard, the decisive role of the Inter American Court of Human Rights rulings against Guatemala was highlighted. The aforementioned rulings prevent the judiciary from implementing the death penalty as there is a legal vacuum as to who can issue pardons to those on the death row, a requirement of Inter American legislation.
There was also an emphasis on the need for political leadership in order to abolish death penalty, independently of public opinion. The role of the panel in fostering widespread debate on the issue, especially among those who abstained or voted against the moratorium resolution in the past GA, was also highlighted. On regional initiatives, it was underscored that abolition is one of the conditions for entering the EU. Further, its use by Belarus is the rationale behind Council of Europe's refusal of its application.
Panelists called on retentionist states to respect international standards, never executing juvenile inmates below eighteen years old, pregnant women or mentally disabled persons.
The relentless efforts of civil society, especially of local organizations working on the ground, were repeatedly commended by speakers as well as the role of the media in raising awareness.
In the recent abolition of death penalty in Illinois and Connecticut,the main driver in shifting public opinion in the USA is the number of cases of wrongful convictions and executions, increasingly proved through DNA tests. It was widely agreed among speakers that no legal or judicial system can ensure full certainty of guilt. Several panelists stressed the fact that death penalty has no deterrence effect, as reflected by little change in crime rates before and after abolition. The need for human rights education in order to build public consensus was also a recurrent theme.
During Q&A, the EU welcomed the panel and highlighted the role of civil society and the need for political leadership to achieve abolition. The EU further asked what can be done by the international community and the UN in particular in order to contribute to the trend towards abolition. In this regard, it was noted that the EU had a key contributing role in the debate in Guatemala and public opinion had been central to maintaining the moratorium.
Panel II - "Human rights dimensions of the application of the death penalty in States retaining it"
During the second panel, examples were given of retentionist states where there is widespread public support of death penalty. Typically, either in countries where crime rates are high (Caribbean region) or extremely low (Japan). The role of regional organizations in the Caribbean and the impact the rulings of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights had on national legislation was discussed. In the case of Japan, the main challenge in achieving abolition arises from strong bureaucratic resistance and a widespread secrecy surrounding the use of the death penalty, which prevents the media and even the relatives of those convicted access information on executions.
The global trend towards abolition has also had an impact on Africa, reflected in the increasing number of abolitionist African states and relevant AU resolutions on a moratorium on death penalty. Within the ongoing constitutional reform in Zimbabwe, civil society has undertaken a wide range of actions to ensure that the new constitution does not include death penalty, which is still retained as a punishment for major crimes in the last draft available to the public. One of the recurrent themes raised during the discussion was the pervasive economic bias on death penalty convictions, which affect disproportionally the poor.
In response to a question on the role of Government when public opinion clearly supports death penalty, there was consensus among the speakers that the abolition of the death penalty in law would precede a universal consensus on the issue.