Regionsglobal-regionsDefeating Hatred: For a World Without Death Penalty

Defeating Hatred: For a World Without Death Penalty

Viewpoint by Adama Dieng

The following are extensive excerpts from the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Mr. Adama Dieng, to the 12th International Meeting of Justice Ministers, on 29 November in Rome. The meeting focussed on ‘Paving the Way: Defeating Hatred for a World Without Death Penalty’. Mr. Dieng is former board member of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and a former registrar of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

ROME (IDN) – The choice of the theme for this conference ‘No  justice  without  life’ Is a recognition that whatever we do and strive for, is anchored on human life. Without life everything is meaningless.

Death penalty is a scar to the collective consciousness of humanity. As recently noted by Pope Francis, Death penalty is a cruel violation of the basic right to life and robs people of the chance to repent and make amends for the crimes they have committed.

Therefore, the abolition of the death penalty, represents a courageous affirmation of the principle of the dignity of the human person and the conviction that humanity can confront crime while also rejecting evil. Our inability and indeed unwillingness to forgive and give chance to those accused of crimes to repent and atone for their crimes, is a sad chapter we need to overcome.

Despite ongoing challenge to achieve total abolition, the international community has never been short of legal and institutional framework to make our commitment to the abolition of death penalty a reality.

While international human rights law allows use of the death penalty as the ultimate form of punishment under specific and most restrictive conditions, it is also true that death penalty is never consistent with fundamental human rights principles.

In addition to the right to life, other basic rights are often breached in its application. There has also been a growing consensus that death penalty constitutes a breach in violation of the prohibition against torture under international human rights law.

Indeed, the Additional Protocol II on ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), categorically prohibits the application of death penalty as a form of punishment. Most recently in 2017, the United Nations General Assembly considered a resolution to restrict the death penalty and encourage a moratorium on executions.

Today many countries, inspired by respect of human rights and recognition that death penalty challenges the very foundation of our humanity and commitment to human rights, have placed moratorium or indeed abolished death penalty.

For example; Switzerland abolished the death penalty because it constituted “a flagrant violation of the right to life and dignity”.

Justice Chaskalson of the South African Constitutional Court, stated in the historic opinion banning the death penalty under the new constitution that: “The rights to life and dignity are the most important of all human rights . . . . And this must be demonstrated by the State in everything that it does, including the way it punishes criminals”.

Many European countries, along with Canada, Mexico, and South Africa, have resisted extraditing persons to countries like the United States unless there are assurances that the death penalty will not be sought.

Let me share a few elements from my direct experience and from the broader experience of the United Nations. My mandate, as Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide takes me to many countries in the midst of violent conflict. Myself and my colleagues at the UN are confronted by the killings of tens of thousands, based on ethnic and religious discrimination; or by millions of people forced from their homes, by hatred, losing everything they own.

I traveled to the Sahel region of Africa a few months ago and saw the impact on people of the violence that is tearing across this region. Armed militants arrive and single out individuals to be killed as their family members watch. Days later, government soldiers arrive and single out more people to be killed or detained, for alleged collaboration with the militants.

I have visited Rwanda many times, where the shadow of the 1994 genocide is still long. As we work with Governments and local communities to overcome these crises and build peace, “justice” is an essential element, along with rebuilding economies, institutions and livelihoods.

“Justice” is rarely found in more killing

First, in our experience, “justice” is rarely found in more killing. Even in the face of tens of thousands of killings, we in the UN have found that the death penalty does not prevent future violence and it does not help communities to heal. What does make the difference is forms of “justice” that specifically do not demand yet more death. We support criminal justice proceedings leading to imprisonment. And we support other forms of justice like truth and reconciliation commissions and traditional justice. If the death penalty is not a suitable punishment for the killing of thousands of people, can it really be suitable for the killing of one?

Second, even in the wealthier nations, such as the United States, where the death penalty is still applied, it is recognized that access to the guarantees of the justice system are not equal for all people, with the poor suffering most. It is also recognized that errors of justice take place, leading to innocent people being condemned. If access to justice is unequal and experiences errors in death penalty cases even in a country with the degree of resources available in the United States, how much more likely is this to be the case in other countries with only a tiny fraction of those resources? In countries without access to DNA testing; without the capacity to preserve evidence for many decades in case there is an appeal; where witnesses may not have the same protections?

Third, the world is now moving into an era of extreme challenges. Climate change, inequality, population displacement, armed conflict, extreme poverty, the lack of fresh water, flooding, and many more challenges will increasingly threaten billions of people. Governments recognize that ‘we are all in this together’. There is no solution to these challenges without ensuring a solution for everyone. There is no nation that can protect its population if other nations and other populations are not also protected. There are many obstacles to finding these solutions. But I believe that the biggest one is the lack of mutual respect for human dignity.

We must retrieve this respect. It is the only key to overcoming the global challenges ahead. In many ways, the death penalty epitomizes the struggle of humanity and of nations to find this mutual respect for human dignity.

Finally, I argue states to come together and join hands. Similarly, I argue civil society and all non-state actors to join together. Through these efforts, I firmly believe that we can abolish death penalty in our lifetime. Twenty-five years ago, only a quarter of UN Member States had abolished the death penalty. Today, more than four out of five countries – some 160 Member States – have either abolished the death penalty or no longer use it. We see a sign of hope. Yet, our efforts, commitment and engagement with retentionist states must be sustained. It can be done. It can be achieved. Play your part.

Click here for the complete text > [IDN-InDepthNews – 30 November 2019]

Photo: United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Mr. Adama Dieng, addressing the 12th International Meeting of Justice Ministers. Source:

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