Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions focuses on death penalty in General Assembly report
Tuesday, 13 November 2012 00:25



On 24 October, 2012 Mr Christof Heyns, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, presented his annual report to the Third Committee of the General Assembly, which focused this year on the death penalty. The Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment also focused his report to the Third Committee this year on the death penalty. This would seem strategic as the Third Committee is currently in the midst of negotiating its biannual resolution on the death penalty.


The Special Rapporteur’s report and presentation mainly focused on restrictions relating to the imposition of the death penalty, which generated much debate amongst member States during the interactive dialogue. While the Special Rapporteur cited a growing trend among States toward the abolition of the death penalty, he was gravely concerned by the several cases in which domestic law and practice defied international standards. Equally problematic was the fact that information on the use of the death penalty is often kept secret, precluding assessment of the State’s level of compliance with international standards. Mr Heyns reminded States that the death penalty may only be imposed for the most serious crimes, namely those involving intentional killing, and specifically excluded other offences such as drug-related activities, economic crimes, apostasy, and homosexual acts, among others.


A secondary theme of his address related to the issue of fair trial, specifically the inappropriateness of military tribunals imposing the death penalty, and the problem of error in capital proceedings. The Special Rapporteur highlighted the emerging evidence that innocent people have been sentenced to death as a critical concern. Mr Heyns urged States to ensure transparency in all cases of capital punishment, including prosecutions, sentences and executions, noting that the absence of transparency on the imposition or implementation of the death penalty by consequence violates the right to life.


Concluding, Mr Heyns called on all States to ensure that countries that still administered capital punishment apply it under very strict observance of international standards. In particular, he noted that abolitionist States have an obligation not to assist in the imposition of the death penalty in any way, whether or not the State that actually imposed it is in compliance of international standards.


Nine States participated in the interactive dialogue that followed.[1] In response to a question from Switzerland on whether a Special Procedure on the death penalty should be created, Mr Heyns said he supported special attention being given to the issue of the death penalty, but noted that the level of resources for mandates needed to be kept in mind. He also noted that he plans to continue his engagement with the issue, as 20-25 per cent of his communications relate to the death penalty.


Singapore and Vietnam argued that the death penalty is outside the scope of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate, noting that that there is no international consensus for, or against, capital punishment when imposed according with due process. In response, Mr Heyns stressed that unlawful killings in the context of the death penalty do indeed directly fall within his mandate, and cited in particular the GA resolution on the mandate. That resolution calls on all States in order to prevent extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to comply with their obligations under relevant provisions of international human rights instruments, and further calls upon States that retain the death penalty to pay particular regard to the provisions contained in articles 6, 14 and 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and articles 37 and 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


Also noting its reservations was Kenya, which observed with less conviction that addressing the death penalty probably encroached on an area outside of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate. Kenya also asked the Special Rapporteur on how to move from a moratorium to full abolition, to which Mr Heyns responded that a moratorium is a useful “halfway house” until the political will is strong enough to repeal the death penalty. The US engaged constructively, sharing its concern about the death penalty being carried out in violation of international law and asked the Special Rapporteur what States and civil society could do to increase transparency where it is lacking.


Presumably taking aim at the US, Russia inquired if the Special Rapporteur intended to do a study on drones or remote controlled vehicles. Mr. Heyns said he does plan to investigate the use of robotic technology and remote controlled aerial vehicles within the international human rights framework, and its implications for protection of the right to life.


[1] Switzerland, Norway, the EU, the US, Kenya, Russia, Brazil, and Viet Nam.



Last Updated on Thursday, 15 November 2012 10:31
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