GENEVA – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet called on all countries to take a united and positive attitude towards the abolition of the death penalty during a high-level panel discussion held on Tuesday at the Human Rights Council in Geneva as part of the 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council.
Coly Seck, President of the Human Rights Council, reminded that the Council was holding the biennial high-level panel on the question of the death penalty in line with its resolutions 26/2 and 36/17, when it decided to focus the discussion on the violations of human rights in the context of the death penalty, particularly when it concerned the rights to non-discrimination and equality.
In her opening statement, Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reminded that death rows were excessively populated by the poor and economically vulnerable; members of ethnic minorities; people with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities; foreign nationals; indigenous persons; and other marginalized members of society. Condemning people to death for conduct that should not be criminalized in the first place was never compatible with a State’s human rights obligations. The High Commissioner encouraged all States to take a stand on the right side of history and join the international trend towards abolition.
Didier Reynders, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, and Defence of Belgium, speaking on behalf of a group of States that co-sponsored the resolution to hold this panel, regretted that the death penalty continued to be applied in cases of apostasy, blasphemy, adultery or consensual relations between people of the same sex. Poverty and the death penalty were linked, including due to financial access to legal recourse. Maintaining the death penalty had no impact on the crime rate and it was time to unilaterally turn the page on that practice.
Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nepal, said that in Nepal the abolition of the death penalty had been possible through a long and conscious effort of all stakeholders, including political leaders, civil society, human rights defenders, and the media. It was a conscious national choice and a reflection of shared values.
Melinda Janki, Director of the Justice Institute Guyana, noted that the death penalty, like slavery, sent a message that some lives were worth less than others. It disproportionately affected the poor, the marginalized, the illiterate and the mentally challenged, whereas the rich were able to pay lawyers or get a non-guilty verdict.
Fatimata M’Baye, Lawyer and Co-Founder of the Mauritanian Human Rights Association, drew attention to the case of a blogger who had posted an article about social discrimination in Mauritania and been accused of blasphemy, then sentenced to death. The United Nations could play a role in ending the death penalty by asking those States that still practiced it to abandon that punishment in the name of the right to life.
Among the speakers were three Muslim countries that were the first to carry out the death penalty and tried to defend their judicial system and their adherence to this cruel and irreversible punishment. It considered that every State has the right to choose its legal and judicial system without external interference.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the largest countries that have a black record in this issue, where executions are carried out publicly and in public squares. It used the most terrible methods, such as beheading sword and throwing stones to death in a horrific scene contrary to the provisions of international human rights law and standards.
The Saudi delegate defended the judicial system in the Kingdom and said that the death sentence is based on Islamic law and applies to the most serious crimes under a final judgment issued by a competent court after completion of judicial proceedings in all courts of various degrees. However, the reality does not say that the death penalty was carried out in crimes such as drug smuggling, witchcraft, treason, homosexuality, mocking religion and other crimes.
Both the representative of Iraq and Iran defended their country’s adherence to the death penalty as a fundamental requirement within society and applied it to the most serious crimes, despite the fact that all international human rights reports refer to the opposite. They always warn against using the death penalty in Iraq and Iran to liquidate political opponents and ethnic cleansing.
In the ensuing discussion, speakers expressed a belief that the abolition of the death penalty and torture had elevated human dignity and advanced human rights. The death penalty was a human right violation. They hailed the adoption in the United Nations General Assembly of a resolution on a moratorium on the death penalty in December 2018 but noted that around the world capital punishment continued to be imposed in violation of major international standards.
Speakers expressed deep concern that the death penalty was imposed in a disproportionate and discriminatory manner to juvenile offenders, women victims of domestic violence, minorities, foreign nationals, persons with disabilities, and poor and economically vulnerable populations.