By Angélica Hoyos, senior in Political Science and Human Rights at Columbia University
On July 3rd the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights organized the global panel: “Moving Away from the Death Penalty.” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the discussion by declaring his commitment to end capital punishment: “The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process.” The goal of the discussion, which included delegates from the states parties, panelists, and members of civil society, was to set up a debate for the upcoming General Assembly in October. In 2007, The United Nations endorsed an international moratorium on capital punishment. Ever since, six nations have abolished the practice. The High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed her hope for many other states to follow this trend. She reminded retentionist states that they ought to comply with Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to limit this kind of punishment to “the most serious crimes.” As the Secretary-General reported, there are still a chilling thirty-two countries that are sentencing people to death for crimes other than murder. He and Ms. Pillay called on member states to join the seventy-six nations that have signed the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process.”—Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
The first panel included speakers from Guatemala, Burundi, the United States, and Spain. Mr. Federico Mayor, president of the International Committee Against the Death Penalty, spoke about the importance of working with the communities in order to come closer to abolition. However, as he and Mr. Cousin Zilala, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Zimbabwe, emphasized later in the day, “Human rights are independent of public opinion.” Representing the US was Mr. Barry C. Scheck, co-director of The Innocence Project. He spoke of the significance of the role of science and what it has meant to all the one hundred and forty people who have been exonerated from death row. He addressed the high risk of error inherent in the conviction and sentencing process: “DNA has demonstrated the failings of the justice system [in America].” The problem, he pointed out, was the lack of resources for defendants to access this kind of evidence.
Moderated by Professor Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the second panel focused on human right violations related to the practice of the death penalty and included representatives from Japan, Zimbabwe, the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, and Belize. The first speaker was Mr. Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person in the US to be exonerated from a capital conviction thanks to DNA testing. He spent almost a decade waiting to be executed for a crime he did not commit. “The capital punishment system in America is ineffective and it does not always get it right, I know this for a fact,” Mr. Bloodsworth told the audience. He feels blessed, as he acknowledged there have been people who have been executed regardless of the many doubts about their guilt, such as Troy Davis and Carlos DeLuna, among others. He addressed the difficulty of the access to evidence and DNA testing; only those who can afford it can access it, given that it is not part of their right to a fair trial.
The speaker from Trinidad and Tobago addressed the situation in all the countries forming the Commonwealth Caribbean, where prisoners are executed for reasons besides murder. Ms. Maiko Tagusari, Secretary-General of the Center for Prisoners’ Rights, denounced the treatment of prisoners in Japan, the lack of a mandatory appeal system, as well as the secrecy–no family members or media are informed of the executions, which occur spontaneously. Ms. Tagusari noted that although it is prohibited to execute the mentally ill, the lack of the transparency of the justice system makes advocacy very difficult for the death row prisoners.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Ms. Pillay expressed their concern and called on the nations retaining the death penalty to comply with the principle of non-discrimination, since usually the individuals on death row are members of minorities and lack the resources to afford private counsel. Ms. Pillay concluded by stating that, “[it’s] important for the effectiveness and transparency of such a debate to ensure that the public is provided with all sides of the arguments and with information and accurate statistics on criminality and the various effective ways to combat it, short of the death sentence.” The global panel focused on the common global trend towards “moving away from the capital punishment.” As Mr. Heyns pointed out, in 2011 only twenty countries executed prisoners and only six nations executed more than twenty people. Although these numbers support such a trend, the violations to the human rights of those prisoners in the retentionist countries continues to be a major concerned.
Angélica Hoyos is a senior at Columbia University, double majoring in Political Science and Human Rights. She is originally from Bogotá, Colombia, and is currently serving as the Senior Class President for the School of General Studies.