World Moving Towards Abolition

By: Mehru Jaffer
IPS
Thursday, May 20, 2010

VIENNA, May 20, 2010 (IPS) - Anti-death penalty activists meeting in the Austrian capital to discuss the eighth quinquennial report of the United Nations Secretary-General have hailed a worldwide trend towards total and universal abolition of capital punishment.

The abolitionists are euphoric although several countries, where capital punishment remains in force, also disrespect international norms and standards on three counts - in limiting the death penalty to very serious crimes, excluding juvenile offenders from its scope and guaranteeing fair trial.

The U.N. report on capital punishment and implementation of the safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty was tabled Thursday before the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice at its 19th session that concludes here on May 20.

"The campaign against abolishing the death penalty is a long one requiring constant reminders. And the Secretary-General's report is an extremely important and valuable tool in reminding the world to abolish capital punishment. The report will keep the dialogue and discussion with governments alive," said Thomas H. Speedy Rice of the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers (NACDL) from the United States.

Rice told IPS that in his opinion the report contributed to a continuing and more reasoned debate on a very emotive subject. He praised the approach of the report and the contribution made by both U.N. offices and non-governmental campaigners such as the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP), an alliance of NGOs, bar associations, local bodies and unions.

Together with WCADP, the NACDL hosted an ancillary meeting on Thursday that was also attended by Jacqueline Macalesher, death penalty project manager for the London-based Penal Reform International (PRI).

Macalesher highlighted PRI's ongoing programme on the abolition of the death penalty and alternatives that respect international human rights standards.

For two years the PRI's death penalty project will work in 20 countries in five regions to increase safeguards and promote greater accountability in criminal justice systems through holistic policy development and legal reform, including improved prison management.

The other objective of the project is to challenge governments to consider carefully whether sanctions intended to replace the death penalty and treatment of long-term prisoners comply with international standards and norms.

Macalesher, whose work began early this year, finds the Middle East and North African regions the most challenging because death penalty is seen as part and parcel of the culture and religion of populations there.

The project will take on society's attitudes about the death penalty and support governments to move towards abolition, and transparency in the application of the death penalty.

"Even states that retain the death penalty are reported to have abolished its use either in law or in practice. The acceleration of this practice even slightly is extremely positive," said Aurelie Placaise, a campaigner representing WCADP.

The report finds that countries that retain the death penalty are, with rare exceptions, significantly reducing its use in terms of numbers of persons executed and the crimes for which it may be imposed.

However, while working towards an international ban on capital punishment abolitionists also want those states that retain the death penalty not to violate safeguards and to fully respect existing limitations and restrictions on the use of the death penalty.

Of particular concern to abolitionists is the use of the death penalty against juvenile offenders. The Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly stipulates that capital punishment shall not be imposed for offences committed by persons below 18 years of age.

The overwhelming and growing international consensus that the death penalty should not apply to juvenile offenders stems from the recognition that young persons lack maturity and judgement and, therefore, cannot be expected to be fully responsible for their actions.

More importantly, it reflects the firm belief that young persons are more susceptible to change, and thus have a greater potential for rehabilitation than adults.

Placaise said that being the eve of the U.N. resolution on a moratorium on the use of death penalty, that faces a vote at the end of the year at the General Assembly, this is a good time to be discussing the issue.

This resolution is seen as the closest commitment of the international community to abolish capital punishment in the world.

According to Placaise more than two-thirds of the world's countries have already abolished the death penalty in law or in practice with 95 countries having abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

Nine countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes except extraordinary crimes like those committed in times of war and 35 countries are de facto abolitionists where the death penalty is still provided for in legislation but no executions have take place for at least ten years.