Abolish death penalty now, UN rights chief urges 79 nations

“Despite all efforts made, the death penalty continued to be pronounced on the African continent, with clear risks of judicial error,”


The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, on Wednesday called on all nations to work harder towards abolishing the death penalty, an ongoing practice in 79 countries.

Türk made the call at a panel session on human violations at the ongoing UN Human Rights Council’s 52nd regular session in Geneva.

The biennial panel’s theme is human rights violations relating to the use of the death penalty, in particular with respect to limiting the practice to only the most serious crimes.

The UN correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that 2023 marks 75 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It also marks 30 years since the adoption of the Vienna Declaration – two milestone documents that continue to guide the work of the Council.

Türk said this is ultimately about the United Nations Charter’s promise of the highest standards of protection of all human beings, in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which marks its 75th anniversary this year.

“Opponents to a death penalty moratorium say that the rights of victims risk being overlooked; they assert that retribution is the best response,” he said in a statement.

He said that experts in criminal justice, drawing on experience worldwide, had advised that the proper response rests in controlling and preventing crimes.

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They recommend building functioning, human rights-based criminal justice systems that ensure accountability for perpetrators and afford victims and survivors access to justice, redress and dignity.

The UN rights chief also urged governments to collect, analyse, and make available public data on its use and actual effectiveness.

According to him, achievements towards the goal of abolishing capital punishment can be seen across different regions of the world.

Idrissa Sow, who chairs the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ working group on the issue, said the African Union is considering a draft protocol to the Charter on the Abolition of the Death Penalty.

Sow said 26 nations in Africa had totally abolished the practice and 14 others are applying moratoria.

“Despite all efforts made, the death penalty continued to be pronounced on the African continent, with clear risks of judicial error,” he said.

He noted that more than half of all African nations still implement capital punishment.

To address that, he underlined a need to develop partnerships with other national and international institutions to move towards universal abolition.

The Malayia’s Minister for Law and Institutional Reform, Ms Azalina Othman, said the Government of Malaysia is moving towards abolishing its mandatory death penalty

“While the death penalty itself was not completely abolished, the abolition of the mandatory death penalty was a balance between what was right and wrong,” she said.

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Also, Mai Sato, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law at Monash University in Australia, said that only two of the 79 countries implementing the death penalty adhere to international standards restricting the practice to the most serious crimes.

Yet, the remaining 77 countries failed to meet the “most serious” standard, she said, with 11 nations implementing the death penalty for capital offences that should not be criminalised at all, including adultery, “so-called religious offences”, and same-sex sexual acts.

Sarah Belal, who heads the non-governmental organisation Justice Project Pakistan, noted that nearly 4,000 people are on “death row” there, relating to 30 current capital offences, saying that every country’s journey towards abolition or compliance with international standards is tethered to their own sociocultural context.

She said when Pakistan lifted its seven-year death penalty moratorium in 2014 following a devastating terrorist attack, 325 people on death row were executed in 2015.

She further said that years of strategic advocacy and increased engagement with international human rights law “raised the political cost of executions”, noting that no executions have been conducted since 2019.

Following the panel presentations, speakers raised divergent views, highlighting the lack of consensus on the issue, some delegates reiterated that there is no international law prohibiting capital punishment.

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They called for respect of cultural particularities and religious beliefs of all, some delegates said all States have the right to determine their own legislation.

Many speakers voiced support for moves towards abolition while some delegates said the death penalty should not be instrumentalised by any State to punish individuals participating in demonstrations and strike fear into the population.

A record 125 nations had voted in favour in December of the General Assembly’s resolution, supporting a global call for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty with a view towards its ultimate abolition.