As a longtime practicing attorney in the United States, I spent much of my professional career working on cases related to criminal justice, including prison conditions and the death penalty. My death penalty work brought me in contact with The Advocates for Human Rights several years ago, when I had the opportunity to write a report to the UN Human Rights Council about the death penalty in the United States. So began a volunteer relationship in which I was able to participate in The Advocates’ UN work to abolish the death penalty and many other issues. It’s thanks to that relationship that I’m now studying International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights at the Geneva Academy in Switzerland, and hope to continue addressing criminal justice issues using different approaches after graduation.
While pursuing my studies, I am also still a volunteer for The Advocates in Geneva. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a pre-session meeting with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child regarding Tunisia’s progress in implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The pre-session meetings provide a chance for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other interested stakeholders to provide information to the Committee in a confidential setting. I joined Bronwyn Dudley of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and Choukri Latif of the Coalition tunissiene contre la peine de mort (a Tunisian anti-death penalty NGO), to address the committee regarding Tunisia’s failure to implement the rights of children whose parents have been sentenced to death or were executed. The Advocates, the Tunisian Coalition, and the World Coalition highlighted these issues in a recent report to the Committee.
Children: Unseen victims of the death penalty
This year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty, on October 10, 2019, will focus on how children around the world are affected by the death penalty, so meeting with the Committee on the Rights of the Child was a timely opportunity to apply this broader concern to a concrete situation. The World Coalition seeks to raise awareness of the severely damaging psychological trauma inflicted upon children whose parents are sentenced to death, at every stage of the process from arrest to incarceration to execution.
Punishing Tunisian Children for Their Parents’ Wrongdoing Violates the Convention
As in many retentionist countries, people sentenced to death in Tunisia typically spend many years in prison. Indeed, since Tunisia has thankfully been observing a moratorium on the death penalty since 1991, parents who are sentenced to death may spend decades in prison. As Choukri explained in his opening statement to the Committee, Tunisia is failing to protect the rights of those children to maintain meaningful relationships with their parents during their incarceration. Many of these parents are incarcerated far away from their families, and the prohibitive costs of transportation prevent children from exercising their visitation rights. Even for those who can do so, visits are limited to 30 minutes and, for younger children, direct physical contact with the parent is not permitted. Children of death-sentenced and executed parents are not provided with badly needed medical and mental health care to cope with the trauma they endure. Additionally, a new anti-terrorism law has expanded the potential application of the death penalty in Tunisia, including to children themselves, and is very unclear as to what conduct is covered.
Tunisia Must Reform Its Laws and Practices to Respect Children’s Rights
During follow-up questioning by Committee members, an inquiry was made about whether Tunisia has good laws in place and just needs to improve implementation, or whether more work needs to be done on the laws themselves. In addition, Committee members requested more information about the justification for the anti-terrorism law and possible alternative measures. These questions provided me with an opportunity to offer some specifics about the failings of Tunisia’s laws, and how Tunisian authorities must address those failings to bring Tunisia into compliance with its human rights obligations.
Around the world, the death penalty in anti-terrorism laws is typically justified as a supposed deterrent to would be terrorists. But academic research reveals that there is no support for the notion that the death penalty is a deterrent to terrorism. In 2016, the UN Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, torture, and human rights while countering terrorism, respectively, specifically warned against using the death penalty in an effort to deter terrorism, stating:
“there is a lack of persuasive evidence that the death penalty could contribute more than any other punishment to eradicating terrorism. The death penalty is also an ineffective deterrent because terrorists who are executed may just gain in prestige, as may their cause.”
In other words, the death penalty, if it has any impact at all, may provide incentives to terrorists.
Tunisia Creates Unnecessary Barriers to Children’s Rights
With regard to the need to continue reviewing and revising laws, I offered the laws affecting children of death-sentenced parents as an example showing that Tunisia’s laws are not yet compatible with the Convention and continue to be in need of reform. The Tunisian Constitution of 2014 expressly recognizes the rights of children and the government’s obligation to act in their best interests, and the law on Special Regulations for Prisons expressly provides that children are entitled to visit their detained parents. But these laws are vague and do not give Tunisian authorities direction about how to account for the recognized rights and obligations. In law and in practice, Tunisia continues to violate children’s rights through arbitrary interference (30 minute visit limitations and lack of physical contact), and failure of the government to make any provision to address the financial barriers associated with transportation to far-flung prison facilities. The latter failure constitutes a de facto denial of the right to visit, but Tunisia does nothing to take this right into account when deciding where a parent will be incarcerated. In fact, Tunisian authorities often deliberately place parents far from their families, considering such isolation to be part of the parent’s punishment. Such punishment obviously violates the rights of the child, just as expressly denying visits would.
I was also able, thanks to the detailed research Bronwyn conducted before the meeting, to point the Committee to two of its own previous recommendations that supported our position that Tunisia has a positive obligation to take the child’s interests into account during criminal proceedings related to the parent.
By: Lisa Borden, a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights, currently based in Geneva, Switzerland.