Commentary  UN in Focus 

An Overview of the UN and the Death Penalty

“The death penalty has no place in the 21st century.” Such were the words from the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, wrote Maya Garner of International United Nations Watch.

By Maya Garner

“The death penalty has no place in the 21st century.” Such were the words from the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. While 106 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, 8 abolished it for ordinary crimes, and 106 are abolitionist in practice, meaning no executions in the last decade, there are still 56 retentionist countries today. Powerful UN member States are among the retentionist countries, which raises the question of whether the UN doing enough to live up to the words of its Secretary General.

The UN has adopted a moratorium on the death penalty with aim at eventual total abolishment. In 2018, the UN General Assembly had record-high support for its seventh resolution calling on states retaining the death penalty to establish a moratorium on executions. 121 out of 193 UN member states voted in favor with 35 against, and first time support for the resolution from Dominica, Libya, Malaysia and Pakistan. The moratorium was first passed as a resolution in 2007 with 104 countries in favor and 54 against. 

Amnesty International’s annual report for 2018 outlined the developments, positive or negative, on abolishing the death penalty. Globally, there is a definite trend toward abolishing the death penalty, and progress on the death penalty is visible in the numbers. The 2018 Amnesty reports indicated that this positive global trend toward abolition has continued, though some countries have regressed on the issue, showing an increase in executions. Between 2014-2018, Pakistan showed a 77% decrease of known executions, while Somalia showed a 46% decrease. Yet some countries do not keep within this trend with signs of reversal of progress for some countries, while others show decreasing of sentences and executions at a much slower rate than others globally. Japan had its highest number of executions since 2018. China and the United States are the two permanent members of the UN Security Council that were highlighted in the Amnesty 2018 report. China lies number 1 as the world’s top executioner, though figures remain a state secret, and the U.S. is number 7. 

Despite these decreases, however, Iran continued to account for more than one third of all recorded executions; and 78% of all known executions were carried out in just four countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Viet Nam and Iraq.

The authorities of Viet Nam indicated in November that 85 executions had been carried out during 2018, placing the country among the world’s top five executioners and confirming long-held fears about the extensive use of the death penalty by the state.

In Japan and Singapore, which reported their highest yearly totals in over a decade; in South Sudan, where reported executions almost doubled from 4 in 2017 to 7+ in 2018; and in Belarus, where the yearly total doubled compared to the previous year (from 2+ in 2017 to 4+ in 2018).

For the U.S., the number of executions have increased for the second year in a row, though numbers remain within historically low trends. In 2009, the number of death sentences lied at around 100 and has since been decreasing, reaching a low point in 2016 with roughly 30 executions that year, then rising to 40-45 for 2017 and 2018. The number of actual executions carried out followed the same trend with the number of actual executions corresponding to roughly half the death sentences, rising after 2016 — notably with the change of administration in the White House. In this time period, three states resumed executions after a decade long hiatus with Nebraska carrying out its first execution since 1997. There is great internal variability with many states being abolitionist in practice, and the 25 executions of 2018 were carried out in eight states. Texas doubled its amount of executions since the previous year, and was responsible for more than half of all executions carried out in 2018. 2,654 people remained on death row at the end of 2018. The U.S. is currently the only executioner in all the Americas, and it remains an outlier among Western countries as well in its retention of the death penalty. The U.S. as a  permanent of the UN Security Council should be encouraged to follow in the lead of other countries and eliminate the practice completely.

In the case of China, Amnesty International decided in 2009 to stop publishing estimated figures on China’s usage of the death penalty due to concern of Chinese authorities misrepresenting Ammesty’s numbers, and these figures were believed to be significantly lower than the reality. From available information, Amnesty believes that thousands of people are sentenced to death and executed every year, and Amnesty continues to call on the Chinese authorities to make information on the death penalty public. China, along with Belarus and Viet Nam, classify death sentences as a state secret. Since the government of China is believed to execute more people per year than all other countries combined, the death penalty in China should therefore be a specific issue of concern for the UN, and special regulations should be put in place to eliminate it. Additionally, the UN should call for transparency on execution numbers from all its member states.

The death penalty can be combined with arbitrary arrests and persecution, and an oppressive government may use it to suppress dissent. However, various justifications for using the death penalty include using it as a way to obtain a sense of justice through revenge or an eye-for-an-eye mentality, as well as perceiving its usage as a deterrent to prevent crime. However, the death penalty is immoral, both on a fundamental and a practical level. Practically, the death penalty is irreversible, which leaves no space for justice for those who are wrongfully convicted. The very possibility, however slight, that an innocent citizen could be sentenced to death is against every foundation of a just and healthy society. While the death itself is irreversible, it simultaneously does nothing to reverse the crime committed. Additionally, it makes little sense that a government should be granted the power to kill its own citizens, or foreign nationals. In addition, at present there is currently no humane execution method in the world. The act of killing someone is inherently violent, and the methods in use amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Lethal injection, in use in China, the U.S., Thailand and Viet Nam, may be promoted as a humane and peaceful execution method, yet causes a large degree of suffering and has a high rate of failure resulting in particularly painful and degrading deaths. 

The death penalty raises the question of what the purpose is with any legal punishment. Rather than revenge and harsh punishment, a justice system should seek to enforce that actions have consequences that are proportionate to the crime committed, as well as to attempt to produce an individual that is able to function in society. The death penalty takes away all possibility for the latter. The death penalty includes a waiting period of fear and anxiety leading up to the execution, and the actual punishment itself cannot be exonerated and cannot be contemplated or learned from, since the death penalty erases the person from existence. Furthermore, an individual person is simply not the summary of their worst actions. Justice systems globally should move toward sociologically based goals as opposed to psychological motivations of revenge.

Though Guterres’ words at the UN reflect the overall global tendencies, international law does not forbid governments from using the death penalty, neither the International Covenent on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or any other universal treaties. Article 6 of the ICCPR lays out conditions for when the death penalty may not be imposed, such as when other ICCPR rights have been violated; the crime was not punishable by the time it was committed; a fair trial has not been granted; the offender is not entitled to seek pardon; the offender is a minor; or the offender is pregnant. Yet these conditions laid out in Article 6 are simply distractions from the core issue. The only real legal justification for not abolishing the death penalty immediately is “not yet.” Essentially, this is a case of “justice delayed is justice denied.” Human rights, including the right to life, should not be delayed. A total ban on the death penalty should be prescribed by international law, and the UN should live up to Guterres words and follow in the lead, transforming the moratorium into abolition.