Capital Punishment: Where the World Stands

By Polk-Bauman, Bree | UN Chronicle, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Capital Punishment: Where the World Stands


Polk-Bauman, Bree, UN Chronicle


Many cultures throughout the ages have used capital punishment for grave offences, ranging from theft to murder. But today, only 78 countries and territories have retained the right to use the death penalty.

In 2003, according to Amnesty International (also see page 22), speaking to the UN Commission on Human Rights, 28 of those States executed 1,146 prisoners and some 2,756 persons were sentenced to death in 64 countries, and the true numbers were likely higher.

The first attempt by the international community at abolishing the death penalty, or simply minimizing its use, was in 1948 with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It defines in detail the rights and freedoms of individuals, whereas the UN Charter had discussed human rights only in general terms. The United Nations was created after the Second World War to prevent unnecessary death, according to its Charter, while the Universal Declaration further clarifies that goal in its article 3, stating that "everyone has the right to life".

A Declaration is a non-binding treaty, but a Convention or a Covenant is a legal instrument. Since the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, 118 Member States have abolished the death penalty either in law or in practice, and many are encouraging others to do the same. Soon after, some States feared that despite its moral force, not many countries would follow its defined regulations. For that reason, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was adopted in 1966, entered into force ten years later, and now has 152 ratifications. It strongly encourages UN Member States to abolish the death penalty, but allows that the "sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes" (Article 6, Section 2). It also created a monitoring body--the Human Rights Committee--as a mechanism to monitor the implementation of the Covenant.

In 1989, the General Assembly adopted a Second Optional Protocol to the Covenant, which entered into force in 1991. It was created because many States Parties believe that "abolition of the death penalty contributes to enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights" (Preamble). It allows for the use of the death penalty only during wartime and within justifiable reason (Article 2, Section 1), and requires States Parties to submit reports to the Human Rights Committee on "measures that they have adopted to give effect to the present Protocol" (Article 3). Persons below the age of 18 who have committed a crime, known as child offenders, are exempt from capital punishment (Article 37) under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which entered into force within a year of its adoption in 1989. …

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