In a press release issued yesterday, the Geneva-based World Organisation Against Torture reported an announcement by the Iranian judiciary of the end of death sentences for persons under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed. Apparently, a directive of the judiciary addressed to Iranian judges states that death sentences for juvenile offenders must be replaced with prison terms ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment. This reportedly applies to all crimes punishable by death under Iranian law.
The Organisation welcomes the announcement as a crucial step in the fight against the death penalty applied to juvenile offenders in Iran, but expresses caution because the directive has no legal finding force. According to the Association, six juveniles have been executed in 2008 and between 130 and 140 juvenile offenders are currently on death row in Iran.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (art. 37(a)), to which Iran is a party, prohibits the death penalty for persons under the age of 18. The practice is also forbidden by article 6(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran ratified in 1975. Iran is the last State in the world to carry out such executions. The practice was used occasionally in the United States until it was declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 2005.
We often point to the growing trend to abolish the death penalty altogether as evidence of an evolving norm in international law that may at some point constitute a customary rule. But the in many ways the juvenile death penalty provides an even clearer example. The debate began back in 1949, at the time of adoption of the fourth Geneva Convention. Article 68 of the fourth Convention prohibits the juvenile death penalty, but only within an occupied territory. The provision made some countries, including the United Kingdom, so uncomfortable that they delayed ratification of the fourth Geneva Convention for several years. Then, the norm was enshrined in article 6(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966, and finally in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989.
Many States stopped executing juvenile offenders, but they were slower to change their laws (like Iran). Ireland is an example. I'm not sure when the last juvenile execution in Ireland took place, but it must have been prior to 1954, because that is when the last execution of any kind took place. Yet Ireland still authorised juvenile execution in its criminal law until the early 1990s. When Ireland ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in 1989, it felt it needed to make a reservation to article 6(5) because of its legislation which was still in force. The only other country to make a reservation to article 6(5) is the United States. Of course, the death penalty in Ireland is now prohibited by the Constitution and the reservation is therefore of no significance.
Another country I know rather well, Canada, was sentencing juveniles to death as late as the 1950s. I vividly remember someone of 14 being sentenced to death in Canada in 1959 for allegedly murdering a girl. I was only a few years younger than him at the time. He protested his innocence, but was only absolved of the crime in 2007.
When the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted, there were about ten States in the world, most of them Arab or Islamic, that retained the death penalty for juvenile offenders. One by one, they eliminated the practice. Some of them claimed this might conflict with Shariah law, but they did it anyway in order to conform with their international obligations.
So Iran's move means that the barbaric practice has been eradicated in the entire world. A human rights norm that started in a humanitarian law convention only 59 years ago is now truly universal.
And it is also evidence of progress in the norm towards universal abolition. The leading executioners in the world are China, Iran and the United States. All three continue to limit the scope of capital punishment, even if they are not yet ready to abolish it altogether.