On 25-26 June 2012, PRI participated in an expert consultation at Harvard Law School with the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Mr Christof Heyns and the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Mr Juan Méndez. Other participants representing academia, lawyers, and NGOs included Professor William Schabas (University of Middlesex), Professor Nigel Rodley (University of Essex, and Member of the UN Human Rights Committee), and representatives from the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights.
The expert consultation focused on:
- International norms and standards for the imposition of the death penalty.
- The notion of the “most serious crimes”.
- An examination of the multiple forms of state complicity in the imposition of the death penalty.
- The death penalty as torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.
The global trends towards the abolition of the death penalty and the notion of “arbitrary” deprivation of life were the starting points of the consultation. Participants assessed various measures of decline, and identified one of the key challenges: how can we better approach the political framework, rather than the legal framework, in countries that have not executed for a very long period?
Under the “most serious crimes” issue, the growing number of drug, economic and other non-lethal offences was acknowledged as one of the most worrying trends. However, the lack of transparency and available data on the types of death penalty applicable crimes for which executions are carried out hinder a detailed analysis of international consensus on this issue. Proportionality, though, was agreed to be the starting point on deciding what a “most serious crime” is.
On the question of state complicity, participants focused on the principle of non-refoulement and the status of government assurances that the death penalty will not be used. Forms of assistance in the imposition or implementation of the death penalty were also discussed in the context of the provision of assistance for drug enforcement activities.
The consultation also identified various safeguards designed to minimise suffering and protect human dignity throughout the death penalty process, including the death row phenomenon and methods of execution.
PRI focused on the circumstances under which the death penalty may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (as prohibited by Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). In particular, PRI raised questions as to what circumstances need to be met for there to be a violation of Article 7, and whether those circumstances are clear or need additional clarification, and how the death row phenomenon can be used to pressure states to modify their human rights safeguards, and ultimately, to abandon executions altogether. See PRI’s presentation on the death row phenomenon.
The expected outcome of the consultation is to assist both Special Rapporteurs in the finalisation of their reports on the death penalty to the UN General Assembly for discussion at its 67th regular session in October 2012.