by Faatimah S Monawvil
This piece was originally posted on Parliamentarians for Global Action’s website.
On 20 October 2016, [Parliamentarians for Global Action] PGA in consultation with the World Coalition against the Death Penalty (WCADP), launched a Parliamentary Factsheet on the Death Penalty and Terrorism-Related Offences. The launch event served to mark the 14th World Day Against the Death Penalty and was hosted by the Permanent Missions of Australia, Norway, and Palau at the UN Secretariat Building.
The meeting provided an opportunity for high-level UN officials, Representatives to the UN, and representatives of civil society to discuss the particular issue of capital punishment for terrorist offences. Running counter to a general movement towards abolition, some Governments have recently resorted to use of capital punishment and, in some cases, extra-judicial killings following terrorist attacks on their countries, in the name of protecting their countries and peoples. In the last ten years, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Tunisia and others have adopted laws that expand the scope of the death penalty, adding certain terrorist acts to the list of crimes punishable by death. More recently, Pakistan and Chad resumed executions in the name of the fight against terrorism, putting an end to moratoriums that had lasted for years. The launch of parliamentary factsheet spoke out against this trend, urging parliamentarians and governments around the world to take action against the death penalty for terrorism. The event was also held within the margins of the UNGA Third Committee for Social, Humanitarian and Cultural issues which is working on a draft resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty.
The moderator, Mr. David Marshall of the Rule of Law Section of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) introduced the panelists and opened the event by expressing the concerns of the OHCHR in regards to the obstacles hindering the global shift away from the death penalty – particularly in relation to terrorist offences, misinformation regarding the death penalty’s capacity to deter, and the use of the death penalty for free speech.
Following his introduction, H.E. Dr. Caleb Otto, Permanent Representative of Palau to the UN, noted in his opening remarks that more executions are being carried out with the “war on terror” as justification. This is despite the fact that the death penalty does not, in fact, deter terrorism. He also highlighted the lack of an internationally accepted definition of terrorism; which leaves space within the loose collection of existing definitions for the inclusion of peaceful protest and free speech – which are protected under international law.
H.E. Amb. May-Elin Stener, Deputy Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN, emphasized the severity of terrorism as a global challenge that must be countered with the democratic principles that democratic states hold daily. She explained that as violence triggers violence, the death penalty cannot be a part of this toolbox. She underscored the importance of the Parliamentary Factsheet in its capacity to provide facts and statistics to parliamentarians who want the abolition of the death penalty – to counter the assumptions and beliefs that are at the forefront of death penalty retention.
Reinforcing the importance of parliamentarians in the abolition of the death penalty, H.E. Ambassador Caitlin Wilson, Deputy Permanent Representative of Australia to the UN highlighted Australia’s unique position between government and civil society; which allows them to move society towards the direction of a fair, just state. She then used Australia’s history with the death penalty to illustrate the decrease in public support for the death penalty following its abolition. Amb. Wilson also announced that should Australia gain a seat on the Human Rights Council, they would push for the global abolition of the death penalty.
In her summary of key facts, Dr. Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions highlighted a few alarming trends that position the death penalty in opposition to international human rights standards. She specifically noted that the reintroduction of the death penalty both runs contrary to international trends and is a violation of international law; prisoners subject to the death penalty are often also subject to violations of international standards on torture and the treatment of prisoners; and the expansion of the scope of the death penalty for terrorism has extended beyond the international legal allowance of “most serious crimes” to include free speech and non-violent actions. In relation to combatting the death penalty, Dr. Callamard stated the need to push for the human rights message as the most effective way of countering terrorism.
The discussion then shifted to the voices of victims of terrorism as Ms. Yohanna Brette, the Head of Mission of the French Association of Victims of Terrorism, recounted her personal experience as a victim of terrorism after the death of her mother during the UTA DC10 terrorist attack/plane hijacking in 1989, which occurred in Niger. Ms. Brette was only one year old when her mother was killed by attackers forming part of Libya’s secret services. In her statement, she called to end the use of justice for victims as justification for the death penalty; rather, she noted the need to address the factors that contribute both to terrorism and to the use of the death penalty must be addressed. Ms. Brette underlined that victims want justice and truth, not vengeance: many do not support the Death Penalty.
PGA Secretary-General [and CGA Professor], Dr. David Donat Cattin emphasized the utility of the Parliamentary Factsheet in engaging and providing parliamentarians with factual information to counter the arguments of death penalty proponents. Underscoring the injustices that are committed with the application of the death penalty – persecution of the most vulnerable groups of society, double injustice if the alleged perpetrator is not guilty – he noted the principles of truth, reparation, and reconciliation at the core of death penalty abolition. He also remarked that executions are incompatible with UN SDG Goal 16.3, which was adopted by all UN Member States “to ensure equal access to justice by all victims of crime.” By definition, the death penalty deprived victims of some of the most serious crimes from access to justice. Additionally, the convicted person may have been responsible for other offences that may remain unpunished. Dr. Donat Cattin highlighted the importance of truth-telling and repentance as demonstrated by recent ICC case convicting Extremist Malian Rebel-Leader Ahmed Al-Mahdi, who committed war crimes in Timbuktu.
The floor was then opened to discussion, largely relating to combatting the culture of the death penalty. Dr. Callamard noted the need to change the environment in a way that demonstrates the death penalty is not an efficient way of dealing with most heinous crimes; in this, the role of influential leaders in various sectors of society is vital. Closing the meeting, H.E. Dr. Otto stated that justice is not taking a life for a life, but changing society to the point where the circumstances that led to the first killing will not happen in the future.