I thank the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for organizing this important event. And I welcome the participation of Federico Mayor, President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, and the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty. Civil society organizations have shown commendable leadership in working to end the death penalty.
In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly took a significant step towards the abolition of capital punishment — and the protection of human rights — when it endorsed a call for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. Since that landmark vote, the trend against capital punishment has become ever stronger.
The sentiment towards abolition finds echoes in every region and across legal systems, traditions, customs and religious backgrounds. There are now 74 parties to the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aimed at ending capital punishment.
More than 150 States have either abolished the death penalty or do not practise it. In 2011, only 20 Member States conducted executions. Since the 2007 General Assembly resolution, Argentina, Burundi, Gabon, Latvia, Togo and Uzbekistan have abolished the death penalty. In the United States, Illinois and Connecticut became the sixteenth and seventeenth states to reject death as a punishment. I welcome this trend and encourage Member States who practise the death penalty or retain it in law to follow suit.
The right to life is the most fundamental of all human rights. It lies at the heart of international human rights law. The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process.
Where the death penalty persists, conditions for those awaiting execution are often horrifying, leading to aggravated suffering. Information concerning the application of the death penalty, including secret trials and executions, is often cloaked in secrecy. And it is beyond dispute that innocent people are still put to death.
The United Nations system has long advocated abolition of the death penalty or — at a minimum and in the interim — moratoriums and restrictions on its use to only “the most serious crimes”. Yet the death penalty is still used for a wide range of crimes that do not meet that threshold.
My forthcoming report on the death penalty expresses particular concern that 32 States retain the death penalty for drug-related offences. I am also very concerned that some countries still allow juvenile offenders under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged offence to be sentenced to death and executed.
My guidance note of 2008 on the United Nations approach to rule of law assistance states that “the UN will neither establish nor directly participate in any tribunal that allows for capital punishment”. International and hybrid criminal tribunals for Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Rwanda and Sierra Leone do not provide for capital punishment, nor does the International Criminal Court.
The call by the General Assembly for a global moratorium is a crucial stepping stone in the natural progression towards a full worldwide abolition of the death penalty. Let us now do our utmost to put a final end to this practice.
I wish you a productive discussion.