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United Nations Overwhelmingly Adopts Resolution Calling for Global Moratorium on the Death Penalty

The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on December 20 to adopt a resolution co-sponsored by 89 countries urging a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. 117 nations voted in support of the world body's sixth resolution on the subject, equaling the record number of countries who supported a UN moratorium resolution in 2014. 40 member nations, including the United States, voted against the measure, while 31 abstained. The resolution also called upon all countries to respect international standards providing for procedural safeguards for those facing the death penalty, to comply with their obligations on consular relations, to progressively restrict their use of capital punishment, and to make available data on how and against whom they apply the death penalty. This year's vote reflected some countries' recent changes on the issue, as Guinea and Nauru, which have recently abolished the death penalty in law, joined those voting in favor. Two countries that are abolitionist in practice, but not in law, Malawi and Swaziland, also voted in favor of the resolution for the first time. Despite its status as a retentionist country, the United States has seen a decline in the use of the death penalty, with death sentences and executions both reaching historic lows this year.


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President Commutes All Death Sentences in Kenya

Kenya has commuted the death sentences of all 2,747 prisoners on the nation's death row. On October 24, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed orders sparing the lives of 2,655 men and 92 women who had been sentenced to death, commuting their sentences to terms of life in prison. While Kenya still authorizes the death penalty, it has not carried out an execution in nearly 30 years. In August 2009, former President Mwai Kibaki commuted the death sentences of the more than 4,000 prisoners who were then on Kenya's death row. One year later, Kenya's Court of Appeal ruled that the country's mandatory death penalty law was unconstitutional, overturning hundreds of death sentences. Muthoni Wanyeki, a regional director of Amnesty International, praised President Kenyatta's action, saying: “The decision to commute death sentences brings Kenya closer to the growing community of nations that have abolished this cruel and inhuman form of punishment. It must now be abolished for posterity.” Nearly two-thirds of the world's countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practice. Among those countries that retain it, the 28 executions carried out in the United States in 2015 placed it fifth in the world behind only China (with more than 1,000 executions), Iran (977), Pakistan (326), and Saudi Arabia (158). 


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United Nations Addresses Terrorism and Capital Punishment on World Day Against the Death Penalty

In an October 10 statement commemorating World Day Against the Death Penalty, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (pictured) urged the global abolition of capital punishment and called the death penalty ineffective and counterproductive as an anti-terrorism tool. Saying that capital punishment not only "has no place in the 21st century," Secretary-General Ban also noted that executions of terror suspects have been counterproductive: "Experience has shown that putting terrorists to death serves as propaganda for their movements by creating perceived martyrs and making their macabre recruiting campaigns more effective." Ban said that, "[t]o be legitimate and effective, counter-terror measures, like all security operations, must be anchored in respect for human rights and the rule of law." In particular, he critiqued vague anti-terrorism laws that states have used as a pretext to target political dissidents: "Let us be clear: participation in peaceful protests and criticism of a government–whether in private, on the Internet, or in the media–are neither crimes nor terrorist acts. The threat or use of the death penalty in such cases is an egregious violation of human rights." At a conference in Geneva held in conjunction with the World Day Against the Death Penalty, UN human rights experts decried the swift and unfair trials and death verdicts often handed down in terrorism cases and emphasized the heightened need for rigorous legal safeguards in terrorism cases. "Executions carried out without adherence to the strictest guarantees of fair trial and due processes are unlawful and tantamount to an arbitrary execution,” three UN Special Rapporteurs said. “We have called on those governments once and again to halt such executions and to retrial the defendants in compliance with international standards."


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World Congress Against the Death Penalty Renews Call for Global Moratorium, Pope Sends Message of Support

Delegates to the Sixth World Congress Against the Death Penalty, held in Oslo, Norway from June 21 to June 23, 2016, have renewed the organization's call for a global moratorium on capital punishment. The event, attended by more than 1300 representatives from 80 countries, featured discussions by death penalty stakeholders from around the world. Participants included human rights officials from the United Nations and European Union, as well as Justice Ministers from both abolitionist and retentionist countries, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, global death-row exonerees, non-governmental human rights organizations, attorneys, journalists, and activists from dozens of countries. On Wednesday, June 22, Pope Francis (pictured, click to enlarge) addressed the Congress in a video message, in which he reiterated his support for abolition of the death penalty. He said the death penalty is not “consonant with any just purpose of punishment," and that "It does not render justice to victims, but instead fosters vengeance. The commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty." In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company, Philip Ruddock, Australia's Special Envoy for Human Rights described his efforts to persuade U.S. and Chinese officials to move away from capital punishment. "I believe when your friends suggest that maybe there's time for a change, you do start to think a bit more seriously about it," he said. "I think many Americans are embarrassed that they continue to have some states that maintain capital punishment." 


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Amnesty International Reports Concentrated Spikes in Executions Amidst Continuing Trend Towards Global Death Penalty Abolition

Amnesty International reported that worldwide executions spiked by 54% to at least 1,634—a 25-year high—in 2015, even as the number of countries abolishing the death penalty reached record levels. In its annual report on global developments in capital punishment, released on April 6, Amnesty said that the bulk of recorded executions were concentrated in just three outlier countries—Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. These countries accounted for 89% of all recorded executions. (Amnesty did not set a figure for executions in China, where data on capital punishment is considered a state secret. The report estimates that China executes "in the thousands" of prisoners each year and conducted more executions than any other country in 2015.) Pakistan conducted the highest number of executions (326) ever recorded in that country, as it resumed executions after a six-year moratorium, and Egypt and Somalia had significant increases in executions, although both executed fewer prisoners than did the United States. At the same time, 2015 saw the largest number of countries abolishing the death penalty in more than a decade, as four more countries (Republic of Congo, Fiji, Madagascar, and Suriname) officially ended the practice. The total number of abolitionist countries rose to 102, with 140 countries having either abolished the death penalty altogether or not carried out any executions in more than a decade. The United States ranked fifth in the number of executions carried out last year, with executions also concentrated in a few high-use jurisdictions—just three states carried out 86% of executions, reflecting the same patterns seen globally in the use of the death penalty. The report emphasized the outlier status of the few nations that continue to perform executions, saying, "Today the majority of the world’s countries are fully abolitionist, and dozens more have not implemented death sentences for more than a decade, or have given clear indications that they are moving towards full abolition. The starkly opposing developments that mark 2015 underscore the extent to which the countries that use the death penalty are becoming the isolated minority." (Click image to enlarge.) 


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BOOKS: "13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty"

The recent book, 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty, by Mario Marazziti, explores the United States' continuing use of the death penalty in a world community that is increasingly rejecting the practice. The Philadelphia Inquirer calls the book "an interesting, compelling look at the cultural and religious underpinnings of the death penalty and how we got here. More important, [Marazziti's] interviews with U.S. death-row inmates - living and now-deceased - their survivors, and their victims' families highlight the gray of a subject too many paint in black and white." Marazziti, who was deeply involved in the efforts that led the United Nations to call for a global moratorium on capital punishment, draws on his experiences as a co-founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and as spokesperson for the Community of Sant'Egidio, a progressive Catholic organization based in Rome. Pope Francis' appeal last month for Catholic government officials to work to halt all executions during the Church's Holy Year of Mercy came on the eve of an international conference against the death penalty organized by the Sant'Egidio Community. Marazziti's book includes research, personal narratives of those directly affected by the death penalty, and Marazziti's own reflections on the issue. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, "13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty by Mario Marazziti is a deeply moving and cogently argued account of why an abominable practice should be abolished. The death penalty dehumanizes those who use it. Its mistakes cannot be corrected." 


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More Nations Reject Death Penalty, Even as Use Spikes in Shrinking Minority of Countries

The New York Times reports that the number of countries using capital punishment continued to shrink and its use became more isolated from 2013 to 2014, even as the number of death sentences worldwide rose. 105 countries have abolished the death penalty, most recently Suriname and Mongolia, and the United Nations lists 60 additional countries as "de facto abolitionist" because they have not had any executions in at least 10 years. That leaves just 28 countries that still practice capital punishment. However, the Times reports, the number of death sentences imposed around the world increased by 28%. Ivan Simonovic, the United Nations assistant secretary general for human rights, called it "a troubling paradox that while the majority of countries have abandoned the use of the death penalty, the overall number of those sentenced to death has been increasing recently." He said, "Terrorism offenses and drug-related offenses seem to be the driving arguments behind this increase, although there is no evidence of its deterring effects." China carries out more executions than any other country, estimated in the thousands, though the exact number is unknown. Saudi Arabia's January 2 execution of a Shiite cleric sparked conflict between that nation and Iran; both countries have been criticized by human rights groups for using the death penalty for drug offenses and religious charges. The 5 countries that conducted the most executions were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Iraq. (Click image to enlarge.)


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