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Many Countries Cheer Gains to Ending the Death Penalty Globally, but Foes Harden Their Stance

UN GA Vote on Death Penalty Moritorium
The UN General Assembly voting results for a resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty, Dec. 16, 2020, with a record number of countries supporting the end of the practice. Yet the resolution was also watered down with a sovereignty amendment.

MADRID — A record-breaking vote on a resolution for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty has been passed by the United Nations General Assembly, with 123 countries in favor, 38 voting against and 24 abstaining. The vote, held on Dec. 16, was an improvement over an earlier vote, on Nov. 17 in the Assembly’s Third Committee, which primarily covers human rights; in that vote, the draft resolution was approved by 120 UN member states, 39 against and 24 abstaining.

The Dec. 16 vote occurred as the United States has carried out an unprecedented 10 executions by federal authorities since July 2020, after a hiatus of 17 years. Three more executions have been scheduled in January, including that of a woman, the first such execution by the government in 67 years. The last execution is scheduled on Jan. 15, five days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. The US voted against the General Assembly resolution in both committee and plenary votes.

The new resolution, No. A/75/478/Add.2, is the eighth on a moratorium of the death penalty universally since the first one was voted on in 2007. Some important principles appear for the first time. These include the resolution expressing concern over the discriminatory application of the death penalty to women, thereby highlighting the gender aspect of the death penalty. It also raises concerns about the use of the death penalty against children, particularly the need to restrict its use when an individual’s age cannot be determined. This provision is vital, as there have been several cases of young people being sentenced to death and even executed, despite concerns that they committed the crimes when they were under 18 years old. Authorities have stated their inability to determine the age of those sentenced because of several factors, such as a lack of resources and systematic recording of birth records.

Cases of juveniles being sentenced to death have occurred in countries that include Iran, Malawi, Egypt and Pakistan. On April 21, 2020, Iranian officials carried out the execution of 21-year-old Shayan Saeedpour, in the central prison in Saqez in the Kurdistan Province. A criminal court there sentenced him to death in October 2018, after convicting him of murder, by stabbing, of a man during a fight in August 2015. Saeedpour was 17 years old then.

The new resolution also calls upon all countries, for the first time, “to ensure that children whose parents or parental caregivers are on death row, the inmates themselves, their families and their legal representatives are provided, in advance, with adequate information about a pending execution, its date, time and location, to allow a last visit or communication with the convicted person, the return of the body to the family for burial or to inform on where the body is located, unless this is not in the best interests of the child.”

In addition, the resolution recognizes, for the first time, “the role of national human rights institutions and civil society in contributing to ongoing local and national debates and regional initiatives on the death penalty.”

The discussions in the Third Committee before the initial voting on Nov. 17 were tense between those countries that insisted that the death penalty is a matter of national sovereignty and those rejecting that notion, fearing that in the long term the death-penalty abolitionist trend in general and the human-rights issues underpinning the resolution would be threatened at a time of increased nationalist tendencies. An amendment addressing the sovereignty issue, which received 95 votes in favor, 69 votes against and 17 abstentions, reaffirms “the sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal systems, including determining appropriate legal penalties, in accordance with their international law obligations.”

Unfortunately, the amendment reinforces a reductionist view of the death penalty as being a criminal justice issue and erodes the human-rights aspects of the resolution. Nevertheless, it received an increased majority of 24 votes, and several countries that voted for it — including the US — still voted against the amended resolution, thereby diluting the moratorium resolution.

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An analysis of the voting trends on Dec. 16, compared with the previous vote on a death-penalty moratorium on Dec. 17, 2018, shows the following:

• Four countries voted yes for such a resolution for the first time: Lebanon, South Korea, Jordan and Djibouti.

• The Philippines, Sierra Leone, Republic of Congo, Guinea and Nauru changed their vote in the 2018 resolution and voted for the 2020 resolution, while Yemen and Zimbabwe abstained after voting against the 2018 resolution.

• There has been a significant decrease in the number of countries that abstained with the 2020 resolution, dropping to 24 from 32 in 2018.

The Dec. 16 voting trend obviously presents mixed results. For those who support the resolution, the number of yes votes has gradually increased over the years, with the 2020 resolution having the highest number of countries voting in favor, 123 (as opposed to 121, or 120, if we were to accept Pakistan, which had quickly admitted mistakenly voting yes for the 2018 resolution).

Moreover, there is additional cheer for those countries supporting the moratorium, if we note that three more yes votes emerged in the final vote in the plenary session over the original one in the Third Committee. For those opposing the resolution, there is also some cheer: they got the highest support for the sovereignty amendment, which was adopted for the third time and weakened the final resolution. Moreover, the number of countries opposing the amendment has also increased, to 38 from 35, in the new resolution. It is clear that countries backing and opposing it have worked hard to persuade other countries to vote their way.

It appears, too, that the positions on both sides of the death penalty have hardened. While this resolution highlights the universal trend away from the death penalty, the dilution of the resolution and the increased votes against it show that more work needs to be done to create a world free of the death penalty.

Professor Ivan Simonovic, commissioner of the Madrid-based International Commission Against the Death Penalty, permanent representative of Croatia to the UN, and a former UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, and Dr. Rajiv Narayan, director of policy at the Commission, also contributed writing to this article.

Navi Pillay is the president of the Madrid-based International Commission Against the Death Penalty. She has been the United Nations high commissioner for human rights since 2008. She was the first woman to start a law practice in her home province of Natal in 1967 in South Africa. Over the next few years, she was a defense lawyer for anti-apartheid activists; she also lectured at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and later was appointed vice president of the council at the University of Durban Westville. In 1995, after the end of apartheid, Pillay was appointed an acting judge on the South African High Court and became a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she served eight years, the last four (1999-2003) as president. In 2003, she was appointed a judge on the International Criminal Court.

In South Africa, as a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she contributed to the inclusion of the equality clause in the Constitution that prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. She co-founded Equality Now, an international women’s rights organization, and has been involved with other organizations working on issues relating to children, detainees, victims of torture and domestic violence as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

Pillay received a bachelor of arts degree and a bachelor of laws degree from Natal University South Africa. She also holds a master of law and a doctorate of juridical science from Harvard University. She has two daughters.

Ruth Dreifuss is the vice president of the Madrid-based International Commission Against the Death Penalty and a former president of Switzerland.

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