The Death Penalty and Human Rights : A Global Perspective - Seeker's Thoughts

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The Death Penalty and Human Rights : A Global Perspective


The Death Penalty and Human Rights - A Global Perspective

There is an increasing global movement toward abolishing the death penalty through both legal and practical means. Even among countries that still employ it, consensus has grown around its ineffectiveness and violation of human rights.

Multiple international and regional human rights instruments advocate or require its abolition or strict limitations in use.


International Law


The death penalty violates international human rights law, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international treaties. International human rights law includes treaties, customs, general principles and soft laws (such as Hague Convention on Consular Relations ). International human rights law recognizes that all persons have the right to life and that no one may take away that right from them.

International human rights treaties, which are binding agreements among nations who have signed them, contain international standards and mechanisms to monitor compliance with those standards. Such mechanisms include international bodies like the Human Rights Council and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights which oversee cases alleging violations.

DPIC works to advance respect for international standards in both the United States and internationally by engaging in targeted advocacy projects at regional and global levels; supporting actions taken by abolitionist groups (e.g. by endorsing resolutions from the UN General Assembly calling for moratoriums); as well as intervening directly when people face execution; research reports, publications on international law & practice are undertaken, with this information shared among our stakeholders.

As international human rights law has evolved, more countries have eliminated or restricted the death penalty to only serious crimes. Yet many still execute people for drug-related offenses; others execute people for homicide or terroristic acts; still more for crimes like adultery, homosexual acts, illicit sex or theft and robbery by force.

As more nations move away from capital punishment, the United States finds itself increasingly at odds with international consensus on this issue. By continuing to defy this direction, American relations will bear significant costs, making it more difficult to gain cooperation and assistance from other countries.


International Organizations


International organizations have long taken a firm stance against capital punishment. The European Convention on Human Rights prohibits it, while also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates "all individuals are entitled to respect for their person and integrity." Additionally, United Nations General Assembly resolutions calling for its moratorium and eventual abolition have been passed by member nations since 2007.

Multiple United Nations treaty bodies have also set standards against the death penalty. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) explicitly states its aim as being the global abolition of capital punishment, while its Second Optional Protocol allows countries to sign on to treaties which seek this aim through gradual means.

Since 2007, the World Coalition has encouraged member states that maintain the death penalty to join the second optional protocol of the UNGA resolutions calling for moratorium executions, and strengthen national and international standards against its use - such as helping local abolitionist groups take targeted action across various regions worldwide.

Longstanding human rights crises have led to increased activism and advocacy against the death penalty in some countries. Syria remains a prime example: where government forces torture and kill opponents of their government while hundreds or thousands of civilians face lengthy prison sentences for taking part in peaceful demonstrations.

As part of their commitment to human rights and global stability and prosperity, the UN has established treaty bodies which review individual country situations based on respecting human rights. As such, these bodies can effectively highlight problems while offering solutions which benefit all.


United States Policy


As a matter of policy, the United States typically approaches issues surrounding Death Penalty and Human Rights through criminal legal lenses rather than human rights lenses. Annual UN reports reviewing capital punishment worldwide often highlight issues like denial of due process, racial discrimination in sentencing decisions, secrecy in confinement conditions and executions as well as torture tactics used during executions. European Union states have made statements opposing all forms of capital punishment as violations to right to life while Pope Francis has strongly denounced capital punishment on behalf of Catholic worldwide Catholic Churches worldwide.

The United States remains one of the few countries in the world that still employs capital punishment, although executions began declining following several years of increases. Federal and state laws identify over forty crimes punishable by death penalty including murder, treason, rape, kidnapping and aircraft piracy - with execution reserved only for crimes such as murder or treason. According to US Supreme Court rules regarding capital offense trials that must follow strict due-process rules before applying the death penalty - such as murder for example.

Opponents of the Death Penalty have noted that its appeals process for capital cases is too lengthy; prisoners on death row typically await over twenty years before having their cases reviewed for execution. Proponents countered by asserting that many prisoners abuse this system by filing frivolous appeals that extend their time on death row.

Some states have passed laws restricting death-row appeals. Proponents of capital punishment argue that this reduces the risk of executing innocent individuals; however, over 191 prisoners sentenced to death since 1973 in America have been freed or exonerated, more proving innocent than guilty.

The United States should take steps to ratify international treaties that address issues related to Death Penalty and Human Rights, especially the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which advocates total abolition. Furthermore, it should impose a moratorium on Death Penalty until gradual transition towards eventual abolition is completed in line with a 2007 U.N. General Assembly Resolution calling for global moratorium with eventual abolition as stated above.




The death penalty violates basic human rights when administered by state agencies in an arbitrary and/or excessive manner, especially when used without effective deterrence and can lead to miscarriages of justice, as has happened numerous times across America (for instance over 70 prisoners have been freed due to DNA evidence or other new information that proved their innocence); furthermore, the process leading up to and during execution can cause tremendous psychological and physical trauma for those on death row.

DPIC strongly endorses the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights' (ICCPR) call to end capital punishment. Although the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, its Supreme Court has found that capital punishment does not fall under this clause and may therefore continue being applied in this country. ICCPR General Comment 36 provides safeguards against its arbitrary application as well.

Many countries have eliminated or limited their use of capital punishment, with those that still practice it restricting it to murders committed in particularly serious circumstances. Yet a handful of states continue to apply this penalty for other offenses such as drug crimes, treason and terrorism-related charges and murders within certain jurisdictions. Proponents of capital punishment often argue that capital punishment is necessary and just response to murder; other crime fighting strategies do not adequately address their problem.

The Advocates raise numerous human rights issues related to the death penalty, such as its arbitrary and discriminatory application; risks to innocent prisoners; high costs for legal systems; reliance on random influences such as where trials take place and local prejudices; as well as its use in political repression. They advocate for alternatives such as life imprisonment or other forms of community supervision in lieu of executions.

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