INTERNATIONAL: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Calls for an End to the Death Penalty

On December 15 the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights marked the 20th anniversary of an international death penalty treaty by calling for the universal abolition of capital punishment.  Navi Pillay, the top UN human rights official, urged all states to adopt the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The protocol, which bars the death penalty, was introduced in 1989.  “Abolishing the death penalty is a difficult process for many societies," she said.  "[A]nd ratification of the Optional Protocol can often only come about after a period of national debate. Until they reach that point, I urge those States still employing the death penalty to place a formal moratorium on its use, with the aim of ultimately ratifying the Optional Protocol and abolishing the punishment altogether everywhere.” In her statement, she enumerated a number of issues with the death penalty, including "the fundamental nature of the right to life; the unacceptable risk of executing innocent people by mistake; the absence of proof that the death penalty serves as a deterrent; and what is, to my mind, the inappropriately vengeful character of the sentence."  To date, 140 countries no longer carry out the death penalty, and 72 countries have ratified the Optional Protocol on ending the death penalty.  Read the full statement below.

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NEW RESOURCES: The Status of the Death Penalty in Countries Comprising the European Security Area

The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the world's largest regional security organization comprised of 56 States including the U.S., recently published a 2009 Background Paper on The  Death Penalty in the  OSCE Area.  It was prepared by the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and updates the 2008 background paper of the same title.  The 2009 paper highlights the changes in status of the death penalty in participating OSCE states.  Of the 56 countries, only the U.S. and Belarus retain an active death penalty.  The Russian Federation and Tajikistan retain the death penalty but are not carrying out executions.  The full text of the paper can be found in English and Russian on ODIHR's publication page.




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INTERNATIONAL: Use of Death Penalty May Sharply Decline in Japan

Japan, the only other industrialized democracy apart from the United States that still practices the death penalty, may see a halt to executions with the recent appointment of Keiko Chiba as justice minister. Chiba, a lawyer and active death penalty abolitionist for the past 20 years, would have to provide the final signature for an execution to occur.

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NEW RESOURCES: A Report on Mandatory Death Sentences

The Death Penalty Project of London recently published A Penalty Without Legitimacy: The Mandatory Death Penalty In Trinidad And Tobago (2009), a collection of papers presented at a conference in Trinidad & Tobago in March 2009.  The papers include a study of opinions of judges, prosecutors, and counsel on the use of the mandatory death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago and ways to bring its practice in line with other countries that have retained the death penalty.  The report also includes contributions by Jeffrey Fagan on the subject of deterrence and  Douglas Mendes on international and comparative perspectives on the death penalty.  The Death Penalty Project hopes that the findings presented in the report will stimulate discussion about the possibility of abolishing the mandatory nature of the death penalty.  For more information about this report click here.


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INTERNATIONAL-CLEMENCY: Kenya Commutes 4,000 Death Sentences

kenya flagThe President of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki, announced on August 3 that he is commuting the death sentences of everyone on the country's death row to life imprisonment.  The President cited the wait to face execution of the more than 4,000 death row inmates as "undue mental anguish and suffering."  No one has been executed in Kenya for 22 years.  The President said he was  following the advice of a constitutional committee.  Mr. Kibaki has directed government officials to study whether the death penalty has any impact on fighting crime and he appealed to Kenyans to engage in a national debate on the issue, suggesting the government may be preparing the ground for a repeal of the death penalty.



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NEW VOICES: Former State Department Official Urges President to Implement Ruling of World Court

John Bellinger, who served as legal adviser to the State Department from 2005 to 2009, has called on President Obama to assist in the review of the death penalty cases of foreign nationals who were denied rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.  The U.S. has ratified the Vienna Convention and the Protocol that provides for resolution of disputes in the International Court of Justice in the Hague (ICJ).  Mexico brought a suit to this court on behalf of its citizens on death row in various states because the U.S. had not provided the defendants with access to their consulates at the time of their arrest.  The ICJ held that the cases of the Mexican nationals should be reviewed before any executions went forward.  President George W. Bush ordered state courts  to review the cases, but this order was ultimately blocked in the U.S. Supreme Court.  Mr. Bellinger said that President Obama could comply with our obligations under the treaty through legislation: "The Obama administration's best option would be to seek narrowly tailored legislation that would authorize the president to order review of these cases and override, if necessary, any state criminal laws limiting further appeals, in order to comply with the United Nations Charter," he wrote recently in the N.Y. Times.

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U.N. Special Investigator Report: U.S. Death Penalty Leads to Miscarriage of Justice

U.N. Special Investigator Philip Alston has submitted a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva criticizing the application of the death penalty in the U.S.  Alston calls for the U.S. to enact more stringent safeguards to protect the innocent, saying the current application sometimes leads to miscarriages of justice. "It is widely acknowledged that innocent people have most likely been executed in the U.S," Alston said. "Yet, in Alabama and Texas, the 2 States that I visited, I found a shocking lack of urgency about the need to reform criminal-justice system flaws."  Alston’s report encourages the U.S. Congress to enact legislation authorizing a review of state and federal death penalty cases.  The full report may be found here.



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Ecuador Seeks Return of Florida Death Row Inmate

Ecuador is demanding the return of one of their citizens from Florida’s death row because they maintain he was taken from Ecuador illegally. The inmate, Nelson Serrano Saenz, is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Ecuador. Ecuador says he should have never been taken from their country by Florida officials, calling the arrest a “kidnapping” and accusing the U.S. government of physical maltreatment of Serrano as well.  Ecuador does not have the death penalty and will not extradite fugitives who face the punishment in other countries. ''The issue is not his guilt or innocence,'' said Deputy Ecuadorean Interior Minister Franco Sanchez. ''This is called a kidnapping, not an arrest.''  U.S. authorities maintain that they did nothing improper and that Serrano’s dual citizenship status allowed them to bring him back. The Organization of American States, to which both countries belong, has since recommended the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica, after first finding that Ecuador had illegally detained and deported Serrano.  

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STUDIES: Amnesty International Reports World Moving Away from Death Penalty

A new report released by Amnesty International reveals that the world is moving away from capital punishment.  Amnesty's annual report showed that only 59 nations retain the death penalty, and of those nations, only 25 used it in 2008.  Among the nations still employing the death penalty, China was the most prolific with 1,718 executions, followed by Iran with 346, Saudi Arabia with 102, United States with 37, Pakistan with 36, and Iraq with 34.  Argentina and Uzbekistan abolished the death penalty in 2008 and Belarus was the only European nation to carry out executions.  The number of verified executions in China in 2008 was an increase from 2007, but the report does not consider the verified executions in China to be a true picture of the total executions for either year.  Amnesty's "Death Sentences and Executions in 2008" report may be found here.

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BOOKS: The Next Frontier: National Development, Political Change, and the Death Penalty in Asia

A new book on international developments in capital punishment, The Next Frontier: National Development, Political Change, and the Death Penalty in Asia, is now available from Oxford University Press.  Authors David Johnson, an expert on law and society in Asia, and Franklin Zimring, a senior authority on capital punishment, utilize their research to identify the critical factors affecting the future of the death penalty in Asia. They found that when an authoritarian state experienced democratic reform, such as in Taiwan and South Korea, the rate of executions dropped sharply.  Johnson and Zimring also found that politics, instead of culture or tradition, is the major obstacle to the end of capital punishment in Asia.



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