Justice that kills – the death penalty in the 21st century (09/10/2014)

10 October marks the World and Europe Day against the Death Penalty. The European Union holds a strong and principled position against the death penalty; its abolition is a key objective for the Union’s human rights policy. In order to raise awareness about the latest trends in the fight against the death penalty, the EU Delegation to the UN in Geneva, together with the Permanent Mission of Italy and the Graduate Institute, organised a panel debate on 9 October entitled "Justice that kills – the death penalty in the 21st century".

Abolition of the death penalty is a firm and undeniable worldwide trend. To date, about 160 countries have either abolished the capital punishment or no longer execute. However, some notable setbacks took place last year with 22 countries having carried out executions, four of which did so after long years of effective moratorium. Deterrence of crime, favourable public opinion, lack of alternatives – these are some of the reasons given by retentionist countries when defending the application of the death penalty in their judicial systems. But can killing by the State still be justified in today's society?  In order to discuss this question, the panel gathered a number of distinguished speakers, including:

• Ivan Simonovic, Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights,
• Sir Nigel Rodley, Chairperson, UN Human Rights Committee,
• Gil Garcetti, former District Attorney of LA County
• Hanne Sophie Greve, Judge, International Commission against the Death Penalty
• Dr. Mai Sato, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford

The event was moderated by Prof. Andrea Bianchi, Head, International Law Department, Graduate Institute Geneva. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon joined the debate via a video message.

Dominic Porter, Chargé d'affaires a.i. at the Delegation of the EU to the UN in Geneva, who opened the debate alongside the Italian Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Maurizio Enrico Serra, emphasized once more the European commitment to the abolition of the death penalty. He recalled that this flagship objective of the EU's human rights policy was also underlined by the  adoption of the first ever EU human rights guidelines . "As the only international actor to actively pursue the abolition of the death penalty as a policy goal on the global level, the EU has already provided more than € 20 million to over 25 projects worldwide," Mr Porter said.

Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary General addressed the audience through a video message, calling all states to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. "We must continue arguing strongly that the death penalty is unjust and incompatible with fundamental rights. The UN will continue working to end this cruel punishment," Ban Ki-moon stated. This call was echoed by Ambassador Baudelaire Ndong Ella, President of the Human Rights Council, who recalled the abolitionist decisions and resolutions taken by the Council and expanded on the abolitionist trend in Africa.

The event was accompanied by the launch of the OHCHR publication "Moving away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends and Perspectives", and Ivan Simonovic, Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights at the OHCHR took the opportunity of his keynote speech to present the publication's main points. Mr. Simonovic called for clear governmental leadership to convince public opinion of the need to abolish the death penalty. "There are undisputed historical precedents where laws against human rights had public support but were ultimately abolished," he said.

The panel focused in particular on counter-arguing reasons given by retentionist countries when defending the application of the death penalty, such as deterrence of crime, favourable public opinion or lack of alternatives. Speaking from his experience in a referendum to abolish the death penalty in California (Proposition 34 in 2012), which failed only narrowly, Gil Garcetti, former District Attorney of LA County explained that the occurrence of wrongful convictions, the high costs of the death penalty, and the lack of evidence that the death penalty has a deterring effect were usually sufficient to make people reconsider their position. Dr Mai Sato, University of Oxford, bolstered this affirmation by presenting results of her research which confirmed that public opinion surveys can be influenced by the formulation and context of the question. She suggested asking the public whether they would tolerate the abolition of death penalty rather than whether they support the death penalty, saying that "if governments want to continue relying on the public opinion, clear and sound evidence is necessary".

Turning towards the legal aspects of using the death penalty in the 21st century, Sir Nigel Rodley, Chairperson of the UN Human Rights Committee highlighted the strong abolitionist tendency in international organisations. "We must not forget that the death penalty is a human rights issue, and those are the values and principles at stake."

Hanne Sophie Greve, judge and member of the International Commission against the Death Penalty agreed with this view, affirming that the reason for the EU's and UN's abolitionist stance was in considerations of human dignity. "We must opt for a culture of life, enhance human dignity, and upgrade the value of ordinary life for everyone," she demanded. With many victims of capital crimes preferring truth and justice to simple revenge, the panel came to the conclusion that the death penalty is no longer appropriate in the 21st century.

The event was accompanied by a multi-media installation by New Zealand artist Henry Hargreaves entitled 'No seconds' - a series of photographs featuring last meals of death row inmates.

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