By FEDERICO MAYOR, HANNE SOPHIE GREVE, IOANNA KU?URADI and IBRAHIM NAJJAR
INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION AGAINST THE DEATH PENALTY / OPINION PIECE. HUMAN RIGHTS DAY 10 DECEMBER 2013
December is an important month in the human rights calendar. Today it is international Human Rights Day ? the 65th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.
Three days ago it was also the anniversary of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Proclaimed in 2000, this was the first formal EU document to combine and declare the fundamental rights to which EU citizens are entitled.
Both the Universal Declaration and the EU Charter state that everyone has the right to life. The EU Charter goes further, and specifically states that no one shall be condemned to death or be executed.
So this is an appropriate moment to consider how humanity is progressing in its steady rejection of capital punishment ? the ultimate denial of human rights. Unfortunately, 2013 has highlighted how serious challenges remain on the journey to a death penalty free world.
Indonesia, for example, resumed executions in March after a hiatus of more than four years. Nigeria and Kuwait also resumed executions this year, the first since 2006 and 2007 respectively. In August, Vietnam carried out its first executions in more than 18 months.
In Iraq, a sharp increase in executions ? with at least 12 prisoners executed in one day alone in November ? brought known executions to their highest level since Saddam Hussein?s downfall in 2003.
In the USA in June, Texas carried out its 500th execution since the US reinstated capital punishment in 1976. In November, Florida executed a convicted murder by lethal injection, using a new drug that has been challenged in court by death row inmates who say it would leave them in extreme pain.
Elsewhere, a Bangladeshi court sentenced 152 people to death in a single day in November following a mass trial. Japan?s Supreme Court denied a retrial to an 87-year old man, Okunishi Masaru, who had languished on death row for more than 40 years despite his conviction being based on a forced confession.
Such injustices highlight why positive international leadership by forward-looking nations is important if we are to abolish this cruel and degrading punishment worldwide.
Despite this year?s grim developments, we at the International Commission against the Death Penalty (ICDP) ? an independent body led by eminent commissioners from all world regions, and supported by 17 diverse governments ? mark Human Rights Day knowing that globally, the overall trend is firmly in favour of abolition of the death penalty.
As recently as the late 1970s, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Today, more than two-thirds of all States ? according to the UN, more than 150 countries from all regions and cultures ? have rejected capital punishment.
They have turned away from the death penalty because it violates the fundamental right to life, it is wrong and it is inherently flawed as a tool of criminal justice. Its cruelty, its ineffectiveness as a deterrent to crime and its ever-present risk of executing the innocent leave capital punishment with no place in the modern era.
This progress has been accompanied by positive developments at the UN. Last December, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a global moratorium on the death penalty, building on its previous resolutions since 2007. With each vote, support for a moratorium has gathered strength ? rising to 111 countries last year.
Yet the UN?s call is only necessary because of the increasingly isolated behaviour of a relatively small number of nations. The world?s most prolific executioners are China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the USA and Yemen.
Fortunately there have also been signs of hope in 2013. The only international treaty with worldwide scope to abolish capital punishment in all situations ? the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ? secured further international support. In September, Guinea-Bissau ratified the treaty, and earlier in the year both Bolivia and Latvia acceded to it.
We hope more UN Member States will ratify the treaty in 2014, which will be the 25th anniversary of its adoption by the UN General Assembly.
In Singapore, a man who had been on death row for six years had his death sentence reduced to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane. This landmark ruling may be the first time that someone sentenced to death under Singapore?s drug laws has had their sentence commuted.
In the USA, where support for capital punishment has sunk to its lowest levels for some four decades, the state of Maryland abolished the death penalty, becoming the 18th US state to do so. Other states such as Colorado, Delaware, Oregon and New Hampshire are moving closer to abolition.
The Nobel Peace Prize winning author, journalist and philosopher Albert Camus wrote: ?What then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders ? for there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months.?
We must urge the authorities in the world?s remaining executing nations to show the leadership required to take the bold step into the modern age of immediately suspending their use of the death penalty as a first step towards full abolition.
-Federico Mayor is President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty. He is former Director General, UNESCO (1987-1999); Minister of Education and Science, Spain (1981-1982); and Member of European Parliament (1987). www.icomdp.org.
-Hanne Sophie Greve is a judge and Vice President of the Gulating High Court for Western Norway and former judge at the European Court of Human Rights.
-Ioanna Ku?uradi is a holder of a UNESCO Chair on Philosophy and Human Rights Department and Director of the Centre for Research and Application of Human Rights at the Maltepe University in Istanbul, Turkey.
-Ibrahim Najjar is a lawyer and former Minister of Justice of Lebanon.