On Thursday, the High Commissioner for Human Rights delivered a speech in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly. Here it is:
Check against delivery
Ministerial-level event on “The Death
Penalty: From Moratorium to Abolition”
Statement by Ms. Navanethem Pillay, High
Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations General Assembly
New York, 27 September 2012,
Mr. Chairperson, Excellencies, Ladies
I am grateful to the Permanent Missions of France and Benin for
organising this ministerial-level event, which brings together those states
that are committed not to apply the death penalty. It is no surprise that we have plenty of
delegates in the room, because the vast majority of states - 150 out of the 193
Member States of the United Nations - have abolished the death penalty or
introduced a moratorium, in law or in practice, on its use. The support for abolition resonates across
regions, legal systems, traditions, customs and religious backgrounds.
The United Nations stands with you.
It is our established policy that the United Nations will neither
establish nor directly participate in any judicial mechanism that allows for
The death penalty is hardly reconcilable with fundamental human rights,
starting with the human right to life.
As Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently remarked, the “taking of life
is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on
another, even when backed by legal process.”
It is also becoming increasingly obvious that the death penalty
invariably entails cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of
international law. Time and again,
research casts legitimate doubt on methods of execution that are supposedly
“humane.” Moreover, the cruelty of the
death penalty starts long before the actual killing, when the condemned person
sits on death row, caught in a terrorizing limbo between the fear of violent
death and the faint hope that appeals for due process or clemency could spare
his life after all.
Almost everywhere, the death penalty is also intricately linked to the
darkest episodes of history – dictatorship, war, colonial domination, foreign
occupation and oppression of human rights.
In 1981, when Robert Badinter introduced the law by which France
abolished the death penalty, he already observed that “without exception,
wherever in the world dictatorship and disdain for human rights triumph, one
finds inscribed in bloody letters, the death penalty.” This observation certainly applied to my own
home country, South Africa, where we experienced how the Apartheid Regime used
the death penalty as a tool of oppression.
We are proud that our Constitutional Court declared the death penalty
unconstitutional in 1995 and that the abolition of this sentence was cast into
law two years later.
Remnants of the historical links between oppression and the death
penalty remain visible even in the few democratic states that retain the death
penalty. Its application tends to be
discriminatory and the poor, the powerless and persons belonging to minority
communities make up a disproportionate number of those who are executed.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Year after year, more countries are turning away from the death
penalty. This is also reflected in the
increasingly wide support to the annual General Assembly resolution calling for
a worldwide moratorium on executions.
Yet, I will not hide the fact that there are also setbacks. I am particularly saddened when some States
resume executions after decades. In
addition, there have been isolated instances where states have reintroduced the
death penalty for certain offences. From
the perspective of international law, this is problematic. On several occasions, the United Nations
Human Rights Committee and the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or
Arbitrary Executions have criticized states that have expanded the scope of the
death penalty. They considered its
reintroduction for certain offences to be incompatible with Article 6 of the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In this regard, I note that Article 6 (2) of the International Covenant
clearly provides that only “in countries that have not abolished the death
penalty, sentence of death may be imposed” (and that only for the most serious
crimes and subject to the most stringent due process guarantees). This suggests that states that have already
abolished the death penalty are no longer entitled to reinstate it. This interpretation is supported by Article 6 (6),
which specifies that the article must not be invoked “to delay or to prevent
the abolition of capital punishment by any State Party to the present
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to use this opportunity to congratulate all states that
have taken steps in recent years towards the abolition of the death
penalty. They are too numerous to
mention them by name. Abolishing the
death penalty takes political courage. I
deeply regret, however, that there are still efforts calling for the retention
or reintroduction of the death penalty – to manipulate public concerns about
particularly heinous crimes. Such
attempts should be countered with leadership, reason and mutual support.
As a first step, I would urge all states that have not yet done so to
take heed of the theme of this meeting and move from “moratorium to
abolition.” National laws and ideally
the constitution should explicitly outlaw capital punishment. Furthermore, I would encourage you to take an
additional step and reaffirm your commitment to abolition also under international
law. I invite you to join our co-host
Benin and 74 other countries that have already ratified the Second Optional
Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at
the abolition of the death penalty. My
Office stands ready to provide you with relevant technical advice, where
Moving from moratorium to abolition is not just a technicality. Formal abolition will seal the hard-won
national consensus and prevent it from unravelling in times of political
turmoil when populism and rash decisions abound.
Leaders also need to explain the ethical and practical reasons for
abolishing the death penalty to their constituencies. Unsubstantiated arguments for the death
penalty must be countered. In
particular, there is no proof that capital punishment deters the most serious
crimes more effectively than a credible prospect of imprisonment. Some academic studies even indicate that
murder rates fall when the state itself gets out of the “business of killing”
and abolishes the death penalty.
Furthermore, research consistently shows that the best deterrent of
serious crimes lies in ensuring that criminals face a high chance of capture
and punishment within a reasonable time.
The certainty of punishment, rather than its severity, deters
criminals. To curb serious crimes, the
focus should therefore lie on reforming the justice system and rendering it
I would like to take this opportunity to urge states to increase their
cooperation with one another and with civil society to foster the emerging
abolitionist global consensus. It is
crucial that leaders speak out for abolition and encourage their neighbours and
allies to follow the same path. Even
though the vast majority of states do not apply the death penalty, this
majority does not speak with a sufficiently strong and united voice. I would therefore encourage States and civil
society to use all opportunities to do so, including through support to the
annual General Assembly resolution on the death penalty.
My Office and I stand ready to assist you. My Office carries out a number of activities
to advance the debate at the international and national level, such as seminars
for scholars and practitioners. As High Commissioner
for Human Rights, I strongly believe that there is no right more sacred than
the right to life and I will continue to raise the need for the abolition of
the death penalty in my engagement with leaders.
The death penalty cannot be reconciled with fundamental human rights
values. It is an affront to human
dignity, our shared human dignity. Every
time the State drags a human being to the execution site and kills him in “the
name of the people” – our name – a piece of our own human dignity is shattered.
Thank you for your attention.