Message from Mary Robinson: United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to the Press Conference Organized by the Death Penalty Information Center
New York City, USA
Tuesday, 12 October 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I regret that I am not able to be with you today to share this important event. I am confident that today’s discussion will be fruitful and contribute to the continuing international effort aimed at limiting, and one day, eliminating the use of the death penalty throughout the world.

More than half of the nations of the world have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, and I welcome the fact that more and more countries are joining this trend, by either restricting the number of offences punishable by death or abolishing the death penalty altogether. At the same time, I deeply regret that in the last years a number of states have increased the use of the death penalty or resumed executions after a period of de facto moratorium. While working towards the ultimate goal — a universal ban on capital punishment — we must also ensure that the existing limitations and restrictions on the use of the death penalty are fully respected by those who still retain this practice.

I have on several occasions expressed my particular opposition to the use of the death penalty against juvenile offenders. The Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly stipulates that capital punishment shall not be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age. The Convention has been ratified by almost every State, but not by the United States. The overwhelming and growing international consensus that the death penalty should not apply to juvenile offenders, stems from the recognition that young persons lack maturity and judgement and, therefore, cannot be expected to be fully responsible for their actions. More importantly, it reflects the firm belief that young persons are more susceptible to change, and thus have a greater potential for rehabilitation than adults.

While the death penalty is yet to be banned under international law, the trend towards this goal is obvious. The adoption in 1989 of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty was a clear recognition by the international community of the need to eliminate the use of capital punishment, totally and globally. The Protocol has already been ratified by 95 countries. On the regional level both the European and the American conventions on human rights have special protocols for the abolition of the death penalty. The desirability of the total abolition of the capital punishment has also been reaffirmed on repeated occasions by various United Nation bodies and organs. Already in 1971 the General Assembly called on States to progressively restrict the use of the death penalty with a view to its abolition. Last spring during its 55th session, the Commission on Human Rights passed for the third consecutive year a resolution calling for restrictions on the use of the death penalty. The Commission urged all States that still maintain the death penalty to establish a moratorium on executions, with a view to completely abolishing the death penalty The resolution also called on retentionist States to comply fully with their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child with regard to the death penalty.

Over the last year, I have on several occasions made representations to the Government of the United States in regard to persons who were facing imminent execution, and whose death sentences I felt ran counter to internationally agreed human rights standards and principles

My mandate to work for the universal enjoyment of human rights makes me feel particularly responsible to fully and actively support national and international initiatives aimed at a total and universal abolition of capital punishment.