On Monday, October 10, the 14th World Day Against the Death Penalty will raise awareness of the application of the death penalty for terrorism-related offenses with the goal of reducing the use of the death penalty. The United States and 64 other countries allow people to be sentenced to death for terrorism-related offenses.
The Advocates for Human Rights, with the assistance of pro bono attorneys, collaborates with members of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty to bring death penalty issues to the attention of the United Nations to advocate for change.
Jury selection began last week in the case of Dylann Roof, the self-identified white supremacist accused of murdering nine black worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina last year. Roof was recently denied the opportunity to plead guilty and serve a life sentence for his crimes; the Department of Justice will instead seek the death penalty. In response, Roof’s lawyers have chosen to challenge the constitutionality of capital punishment head-on. Their decision to oppose the death penalty in court, citing the punishment as “a legally prohibited, arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments,” follows the lead of similar influential cases that have taken place across the country in the past several years.
In the United States, the federal government has not carried out a death sentence in over a decade. The Death Penalty Information Center reports 2015 as having the lowest recorded number of executions in 25 years (28 people), as well as the lowest number of death sentence convictions in over 40 years (49 people). At the same time, public opposition to the death penalty is at the highest level it has been in several decades, marking steady progress toward abolition of the death penalty.
From the grass roots to the U.S. Supreme Court, individuals have increasingly vocalized disdain for the death penalty. The Black Lives Matter movement has recognized diminished public support for capital punishment and in its policy platform is demanding immediate action toward complete abolition. In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision allowing states to continue to use the drug midazolam in executions, Justice Stephen G. Breyer authored a 46-page dissent, arguing that “it is highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment].” The drug itself is linked to causing severe pain in the process of an execution, a point which prompted some Justices to question the constitutionality of the death sentence. In his dissent, Justice Breyer noted several flaws in the system of administering capital punishment: the execution of innocent people; frequently exonerations of individuals on death row; and the negative influence of politics and discrimination on the imposition of the death penalty in the criminal justice system.
Seven states have abolished the death penalty since 2007, bringing the current total to 20. (Californians will vote on November 8 to determine whether that state will join the list.) The most recent is Delaware, when its Supreme Court ruled that the state’s statute allowing judges to overrule a jury’s decision for a life sentence was a direct violation of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution (the right to an impartial jury). In January of this year, the Supreme Court ruled similarly on Florida’s death penalty law. State by state, courts are ruling that major faults in our system of justice are in direct violation of basic rights recognized in the U.S. Constitution.
This recent trend of questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty reflects a growing awareness of defects within the criminal justice system. The system that exists today puts people with mentally illness to death, disproportionately executes black individuals convicted of murdering whites, and kills the innocent. Execution methods present a real risk of subjecting individuals to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment. Moreover, research demonstrates that the death penalty does not deter future murders. In the words of Delaware’s Governor Markell: “the use of capital punishment is an instrument of imperfect justice that doesn’t make us any safer.”
Capital punishment endures because many still assume that it is appropriate or effective. But here is what the death penalty doesn’t do:
preserve the constitutional rights to life and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment
promote a belief in rehabilitation and reconciliation
punish equitably, without discrimination based on race, socioeconomic status, or disability
punish fairly, by ensuring that no innocent person is executed and by ensuring that all defendants can fully exercise their due process rights
make progress toward addressing the root causes of crime in order to prevent heinous murders
address the ideologies and beliefs that motivate hate crimes (such Dylann Roof’s)
bring back victims of the crime
Dylann Roof must answer for his shocking crimes, and for the permanent damage he has inflicted on his victims and their families. We must recognize the powerful racial dynamics at work, acknowledging Roof’s racially based murders and his privileged status as a young white male in today’s criminal justice system. Yet, we should also recognize the significance of Roof’s lawyers challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty on a federal level. If the court decides that the death penalty violates the Constitution, not only will it mark significant progress toward ending state-sponsored murder, but our country may also find the motivation and political will to reform of a criminal justice system in desperate need of justice, and to bring that system in line with international human rights standards.
By Maggie Poulos, a student at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, majoring in International Studies with a minor in political science. During the summer of 2016, she was an intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. She is interning with The Advocates’ Refugee & Immigrant Program during the academic year.
Click here to learn more about The Advocates for Human Rights’ work against the death penalty.
The Supreme Court issued a decision today in a 6-3 opinion that states must retroactively apply the ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. The ruling comes from the case of 69-year-old Henry Montgomery, imprisoned since he was 17 for a crime he committed in 1963.
When Montgomery was sentenced at age 17, life without parole was automatic. Neither the court nor the jury was allowed to consider his age, maturity, potential for rehabilitation, or other characteristics in determining his sentence. As a result, he has spent his entire adult life in prison and has been ineligible for parole.
In his petition to the Court, Montgomery discussed “his evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community.” According to the Court, he offers advice and serves as a role model to other inmates. He helped establish an inmate boxing team, serving as a trainer and coach.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense must not be sentenced to life in prison without parole unless the court considers the juvenile’s special circumstances in light of the principles and purposes of juvenile sentencing. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether this ruling would apply to juvenile offenders like Montgomery, whose sentences were already final at the time of the 2012 decision.
Today, the Court ruled that this 2012 ruling applies not only to juvenile offenders whose cases were still pending in 2012, but to all juvenile offenders who had been automatically sentenced to life without parole. This includes Montgomery.
Similar to the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, international human rights standards prohibit cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. As such, those standards require that punishments be individualized and proportionate to the facts and circumstances of the offender and the offense. Today’s ruling brings juvenile sentencing practices in the United States into closer compliance with those international standards, requiring courts to conduct an individualized assessment of each juvenile offender in determining the appropriate sentence for the offender. As the Court recognized today, “Before Miller, every juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could be sentenced to life without parole. After Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence.”
Now, with Montgomery, states must ensure that juvenile homicide offenders are considered for parole. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority:
“Henry Montgomery has spent each day of the past 46 years knowing he was condemned to die in prison. Perhaps it can be established that, due to exceptional circumstances, this fate was a just and proportionate punishment for the crime he committed as a 17-year-old boy. In light of what this Court has said . . . about how children are constitutionally different form adults in their level of culpability, however, prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their home for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”
The UN Human Rights Committee has pressed the United States even further, urging it to fully comply with its international human rights obligations by entirely abolishing the sentence of life imprisonment without parole for juveniles. Today’s ruling is an important step in that direction.
By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program, leads The Advocates’ work against the death penalty. She sits on the steering committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty Steering Committee, an alliance of more than 150 NGOs, bar associations, local authorities, and unions from around the globe.
An op-ed published in USA Today written by three retired generals calls attention to the plight of veterans on death row. The generals call for systemic review of the status of these veterans and urge decision-makers in capital cases to seriously consider the mental health effects of service-related PTSD in determining whether to pursue or to impose the death penalty against military veterans.
Brigadiers General (Ret.) James P. Cullen, David R. Irvine, and Stephen N. Xenakis write that “[c]ountless veterans have endured violence and trauma that few others can fully imagine” but defense attorneys in capital cases “are often not adequately prepared to investigate and present” this evidence and prosecutors and judges often treat it dismissively. They say that, “at a minimum, when a judge or jury is weighing a person’s life or death, they should have full knowledge and understanding of that person’s life history. Veterans with PTSD — and, in fact, all those with serious mental illness at the time of their crime — deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field.”
“Vets suffering from PTSD need our help
“The first person executed in the United States this year, Andrew Brannan, was a Vietnam veteran who had been granted 100% disability because of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other problems stemming from his military service. Approximately 300 other veterans remain on death row and face execution. As retired Army general officers, lawyers and a psychiatrist, these facts concern us greatly, and they should disturb many other Americans, as well.
“On Veterans Day, we honor those who bravely served their country and offer our helping hand to assist those who have returned from war with wounds and physical disabilities. Countless veterans have endured violence and trauma that few others can fully imagine. They deserve our thanks. But some are left behind.
“Our hospitals and therapists have performed wonders in assisting wounded veterans who lost limbs. A prosthetic is not the same as the original, but with the courage of service-members, combined with an understanding and supportive community, we are making progress. We wish the same could be said for our veterans who come back with deep brain and mental wounds. Their requests for understanding and compassion are too often dismissed.
“A new report from the Death Penalty Information Center is a wake-up call for an issue that few have focused on. Even as the use of capital punishment is declining, veterans suffering with PTSD and other service-related problems languish on death rows across the country.
“Brannan was executed in Georgia this year for one irrational act of violence that occurred 17 years ago. He killed a police officer who had stopped him for speeding. That is a terrible crime, but as the Veterans Administration had determined, Brannan was mentally disabled with deep scars from his combat in Vietnam.
“James Davis is also a Vietnam veteran with PTSD. He belatedly received his Purple Heart medal on death row in North Carolina, thanks to the work of a fellow veteran and therapist and a pastor, Jim Johnson, who visited Davis. When Johnson pinned the medal on him, Davis saluted proudly, before retreating back into the darkness of his mental problems. He could still be executed today for the murders he committed in 1995, and he has all but given up his appeals.
“John Thuesen is on death row in Texas — a veteran of the Iraq conflict. His PTSD was not properly diagnosed or treated, and his lawyers did not do enough to explain his condition to the jury that convicted him of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Texas executes far more people than any other state in the country, so there is a real concern that his current appeal could be denied.
“PTSD is not as obvious as a missing limb, but it can be deeply debilitating. The trauma from combat can simmer under the surface for years, then erupt in violence, often against family members. It can be triggered by anything that jars a memory of a time when a person was under violent attack, demanding immediate and forceful reaction. Years later, the previous danger is no longer present, but the memory may set off a similar reaction, with deadly consequences. PTSD can be treated, but in one study only about half of the veterans who needed treatment received it.
“In a criminal sentencing hearing, PTSD should be a strong mitigating factor. It’s not an excuse or a demand for acquittal. However, the very symptoms that define PTSD can be frightening to a jury if not carefully explained by a mental health expert familiar with the illness. Defense attorneys are often not adequately prepared to investigate and present this kind of evidence; prosecutors or judges might dismiss it because others with similar combat experiences did not murder anyone. Perhaps some of the blame should be more broadly shared because we sometimes choose to look away when a veteran’s scars are not the kind that we know how to cope with.
“We are not arguing here about the morality or the utility of the death penalty. But at a minimum, when a judge or jury is weighing a person’s life or death, they should have full knowledge and understanding of that person’s life history. Veterans with PTSD — and, in fact, all those with serious mental illness at the time of their crime — deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field.
“Decision-makers — jurors, judges and governors — should be informed that such information is a valid reason to spare a defendant from capital punishment. There are alternatives, such as life in prison without parole.
“We should begin by determining the exact scope of this problem: Who are the veterans on death row? How could their military experience have affected their commission of a crime? How well were their disabilities investigated and presented in court? And what should be done when the system fails them?
“Veterans facing the death penalty deserve this assistance.”
This op-ed published today, November 11, 2015, in USA Today was written by Brig. Gen. (Ret.) James P. Cullen, USA, is a former judge for the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. Brig. Gen. (Ret.) David R. Irvine, USA, is a former Deputy Commander of the 96th U.S. Army Reserve Command. Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Stephen N. Xenakis, USA, M.D. is an adjunct clinical professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.
On September 28, 2015, the UN Human Rights Council hosted a three-hour panel discussion on “The Impact of the World Drug Problem on Human Rights.” One of the panelists was Mr. Aldo Lale of the UN Office on Drug Control. The Advocates for Human Rights and several of its partner organizations prepared the following oral statement for the discussion, highlighting that tomorrow, October 10, is World Day Against the Death Penalty. The theme for World Day 2015 is the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses.
This statement is made by The Advocates for Human Rights, Harm Reduction International, the Paris Bar, FIACAT, and the International Drug Policy Consortium, all members of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty.
Between 1980 and 2000, many countries added the death penalty as a punishment for drug-related offenses. This period coincides with the drafting, adoption and ratification of the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.
Only a handful of the 33 countries that impose the death penalty for drug crimes actually execute drug offenders. But in those countries, drug crimes often result in the bulk of capital sentences and executions.
On October 10, the international community celebrates the 13th World Day against the Death Penalty, this year highlighting the human rights violations involved with imposing the death penalty for drug crimes.
International human rights standards recognize that the death penalty must be limited to the most serious crimes—intentional killings.
Further, the World Drug Report recently confirmed that after 30 years, countries that sentence people to death and execute them for drug crimes have not seen reductions in drug consumption or trafficking.
UN assistance in the form of international funds contributes to the arrest, prosecution, and subsequent sentencing to death of drug suspects. Since 2008 we have called on the UNODC to take responsibility for its role in these human rights violations.
In 2012, a UNODC Position Paper stated: “If, following requests for guarantees and high-level political intervention, executions for drug-related offences continue, UNODC may have no choice but to employ a temporary freeze or withdrawal of support.”
However, UNODC continues to fund law enforcement-focused counter-narcotics activities in a number of countries which aggressively apply the death penalty for drug offences. Earlier this year it was finalizing a new five year funding settlement in a country that has executed at least 394 drug offenders in 2015. This funding continues despite a recent report from the UNODC’s own Independent Evaluation Unit finding that that country has taken “no action . . . yet in line with UNODC guidance.”
Mr. Aldo Lale, how has UNODC applied these guidelines, and has it ever frozen or withdrawn support in countries that still conduct widespread executions for drug crimes?
We urge donors to freeze all financial support pending an investigation into how funds have been spent and until clear risk assessments and accountability mechanisms are put in place.
We welcome the panel’s views on how best to ensure accountability of the UN and donors for ensuring that human rights are respected in drug enforcement.
By: Amy Bergquist, International Justice Program staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights and its representative on the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty’s Steering Committee.
Today marks the formal end of the U.S. government’s second Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. But on many important issues, it’s really just the beginning of many years of work to implement the United States’ human rights obligations.
During the interactive dialogue part of the UPR in May 2015, the U.S. government received 343 recommendations from countries around the world. Today the government formally responded to each of them, stating whether it accepted, accepted in part, or noted (diplomatic UN-speak for “rejected”) each one. At the Human Rights Council in Geneva this morning, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby acknowledged that the United States hasn’t “been perfect in our efforts, and we still have many challenges.”
Those lobbying efforts were successful. For example, 45 countries presented recommendations to the United States on the death penalty, and 23 offered recommendations on the rights of non-citizens. The Advocates lobbied nearly every country that made recommendations on those issues.
Here are some highlights from those 343 recommendations, and the U.S. government’s responses:
Transparency on lethal injection drugs
Some of the U.S. government’s responses were discouraging. Knowing that the government was not likely commit to abolishing the death penalty, The Advocates lobbied France and many other countries to highlight the issue of state laws and practices that keep secret the identity and sources of drugs used in lethal injections. Transparency regarding the types of drugs used and the sources of those drugs is increasingly important in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross, which places additional evidentiary burdens on individuals seeking to challenge the proposed method of their execution as a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
During the interactive dialogue in May, France took up our issue, recommending that the U.S. government “[c]ommit to full transparency on the combination of medicines used during executions by injection.” Today, however, the U.S. government formally “noted” that recommendation, providing no explanation other than its position that the death penalty comports with our country’s human rights obligations.
In explaining the government’s decision to reject calls from 37 countries around the world to abolish–or at least consider a moratorium on–the death penalty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Busby told the Human Rights Council:
I’d also note that we received numerous recommendations–including from Ecuador, Austria, Lithuania, Congo, Nepal, and many others–concerning our administration of capital punishment. Domestic civil society also raised capital punishment as an issue of concern. While we did not support the majority of the recommendations on this topic, we respect those who made them. Our continuing differences in this are a matter of policy, and not what the rules of international human rights law currently require.
Racial bias and wrongful convictions
The U.S. government made some important pledges concerning the death penalty today. For example, we lobbied Angola and Poland about racial bias in the administration of the death penalty and about wrongful convictions. The government accepted these recommendations:
Angola: Identify the root causes of ethnic disparities concerning especially those sentenced to capital punishment in order to find ways [to] eliminate ethnic discrimination in the criminal justice system.
France: Identify the factors of racial disparity in the use of the death penalty and develop strategies to end possible discriminatory practices.
Poland: Strengthen safeguards against wrongful sentencing to death and subsequent wrongful execution by ensuring, inter alia, effective legal representation for defendants in death penalty cases, including at the post-conviction stage.
We also lobbied on the issue of compensation for victims of wrongful convictions. The U.S. government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Belgium to “[t]ake measures in follow-up to the recommendations of the Human Rights Committee to the US in 2014 with regards to capital punishment such as measures to avoid racial bias, to avoid wrongful sentencing to death and to provide adequate compensation if wrongful sentencing happens.” In its formal response, the government stated that it “support[s] consideration of these recommendations, noting that we may not agree with all of them.”
The U.S. government made several pledges on the detention of migrants, accepting a recommendation from Brazil to “[c]onsider alternatives to the detention of migrants, particularly children.” The government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Sweden to “[h]alt the detention of immigrant families and children, seek alternatives to detention and end the use of detention for reason of deterrence.” In its response, the government punted on the controversial use of immigrant detention to deter future migrants, but added that it is “working to shorten detention families may face while their immigration proceedings are resolved.”
One issue we lobbied on was the lack of due process in immigration removal proceedings. Honduras was particularly receptive to these issues, recommending that the United States “[e]nsure due process for all immigrants in immigration proceedings, using the principle of the best interest, especially in the case of families and unaccompanied children.”
Honduras is one of the main countries of origin for the unaccompanied children and families coming to the United States to seek asylum, so it was rewarding to see that government’s interest in the plight of its nationals.
In responding to Honduras’ recommendation, however, the U.S. government glossed over its international human rights obligation to ensure due process, instead asserting that “[n]oncitizens in the U.S. facing removal receive significant procedural protections.”
On the issue of the rights of children in immigration proceedings, the government ignored the fact that unaccompanied children have no right to a government-provided attorney, offering merely that “[t]he best interest of a child is one factor in determinations by immigration judges. [The Department of Health and Human Services] provides care and placement for children who enter the U.S. without an adult guardian, considering the best interests of the child in all placement decisions.”
Rights of migrants
Our lobbying and advocacy on the rights of migrants highlighted many of the findings in The Advocates’ groundbreaking report, Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today. One of the issues we highlighted was discrimination against and profiling of non-citizens. Iran, Mexico, and Nicaragua called for an end to discrimination and violence against migrants and non-citizens, among other targeted groups. In partially accepting these recommendations, however, the U.S. government glossed over migrants, describing efforts “to counter intolerance, violence, and discrimination against members of all minority groups, including African-Americans, Muslims, Arabs, and indigenous persons.”
Another issue we highlighted is excessive use of force by officials on our country’s southern border. Mexico called on the United States to “[i]nvestigate cases of deaths of migrants by customs and border patrols, particularly those where there have been indications of an excessive use of force, and ensure accountability and adequate reparation to the families of the victims.” The government accepted the recommendation in part, adding that it “cannot support parts of this recommendation concerning reparations.”
The U.S. government expressed its support for recommendations to “[r]eview in depth migration policy” (Congo), to “[f]urther improve the rights of immigrants” (Senegal), to give “special attention . . . to protecting migrant workers from exploitative working conditions, specifically in the agricultural sector” (Portugal), and to “[e]nsure the rights of migrant workers, especially in the sector of agriculture where the use of child laborers is a common practice” (Holy See).
But in responding to Algeria’s call to “[t]ake necessary measures to combat discriminatory practices against . . . migrant workers in the labor market,” the U.S. government ignored the obstacles immigrant workers face in combating discrimination. As we explained in our stakeholder report,
“immigrants who experience discrimination often do not complain, either because they are unaware of their rights under the law, because it is easier to leave the employer than to pursue a complaint, or, for undocumented workers, because fear of deportation keeps them silent.”
The U.S. government, in responding to Algeria’s recommendation, ignored these complexities, stating simply that “U.S. federal labor and employment laws generally apply to all workers, regardless of immigration status.”
The U.S. government may be breathing a sigh of relief that the UPR is finally over, but The Advocates and other members of civil society know that today is just the beginning. Now we begin the process of working with the government to implement the recommendations the government accepted. And we haven’t lost hope for those “noted” recommendations–surprisingly, research shows that governments often implement, at least in part, UPR recommendations that they formally reject.
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at the opening of the
Human Rights Council session in Geneva, 14 September 2015
It was the way he lay: asleep, terminal, so profoundly sad – as if by lying in supplication before the waves that killed him he was asking for a replay, with a different outcome this time; and his socks and little shoes told us he was ready to try life again. But his cheek on the soft sand whispered otherwise, it made us choke. Shamed and disgraced, the world wept before the body of this little boy.
These speeches, these sessions, these protests by so many of us here for a world more humane and more dignifying of the rights of all humans, all humans – what good are they, when this happens? Not just once, not just to this tiny boy, Aylan Al Kurdi, but to so many across the world: the horror they experience, relayed daily to us through the news media shreds our hopes for some mercy, some relief.
After a year as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights I, together with many of my colleagues at the office, feel exhausted and angry.
Exhausted, because the system is barely able to cope given the resources available to it, while human misery accelerates. From poverty of annihilating proportions in the many conflict-ridden areas where peace remains elusive, to the denial of the civil and political rights of peoples trapped between the pincers of ruthless extremists and governments fighting them; hatred; bigotry; racism – it all seems too overwhelming.
And angry, because it seems that little that we say will change this. To take one utterly shameful example, despite the horrific human rights violations in Syria that have been investigated, enumerated, discussed, we must continue to deplore the international community’s failure to act. Unless we change dramatically in how we think and behave as international actors – Member States, inter-governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations alike – all of us, in the human rights community, will be inconsequential in the face of such mounting violations.
And yet the selflessness of the finest UN staff members – like those from OHCHR whom I met in Bangui last week, working in the most difficult, dangerous, environments to record and report on human rights violations; and the stunning courage of human rights defenders throughout the world; the loneliness and pain of refugees and other rights-holding migrants: the hundreds of millions who suffer from hunger, discrimination, torture – they prevent us from conceding defeat.
We are mindful, also, that some countries in the Middle East – Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey – and in Europe – Germany and Sweden – show commendable humanity and leadership when it comes to hosting refugees and migrants needing protection. And there are millions of ordinary people who in opening their individual homes to refugees and other migrants have also demonstrated remarkable generosity, and a kindness that should be repeated elsewhere. The outpouring of human conscience that surged up following the publication of the photograph of Aylan, gave evidence for a counter-narrative to the mean-spiritedness of some decision-makers who have been whipping up the baser instincts of their populations.
And so I implore decision-makers in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific – as well as Europe – to take swift action to establish effective and principled migration governance. States have a sovereign right to secure their borders, and to determine conditions of entry and stay in their territories. But they also have an obligation to respect international human rights law, refugee law and humanitarian law.
I welcome the President of the EU Commission’s proposal last week to relocate a further 120,000 people in member states, and his statement that this is “a matter of humanity and dignity”. In Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Sweden and even – despite the long-standing xenophobia of tabloids and some politicians – the United Kingdom, ordinary people have volunteered, not only assistance, but also political support for the rights of migrants and refugees. I urge European States to build on this surge of human feeling by putting in place an architecture of migration governance that is far more comprehensive, thoughtful, principled and effective. We need expanded channels of regular migration and resettlement – two measures which would prevent deaths and cut smuggling. Detention, particularly of children, and all forms of ill-treatment should cease, at borders and elsewhere.
I concur that there is no one swift solution to the terror, the trauma, the deprivation and neglect that drive so many millions of people to leave all that they have, and all they have ever known. To restore human rights in their homelands will take long and focused work. And yes, it is true the people most responsible for their migration are those leaders who have failed to uphold human rights, and robbed their people of hope.
But what we need from you, the distinguished members of the Human Rights Council, is a pledge to connect what you say here to material action on all fronts. The recommendations of the UPR and other human rights mechanisms must be implemented; the standing invitations to Special Procedures broadened; reports to mechanisms and treaty bodies must be accurate and timely; double standards must be banished, and hypocrisy, recognized.
We need your support to assist your countries, as well as others. We need you to accept scrutiny or criticism, and not to withdraw your voluntary contributions because we speak out. Ultimately it is you who exercise sovereign authority and bear that responsibility toward your own people. It is you who should be answerable to them – to respect and not fear them; to serve and not enslave them; to dignify, and not discredit them. My Office will be there to help where and when we can, upon request, and to comment when we receive information that raises concern. But in this, we are not infringing on the sovereign rights of any country.
Sovereignty cannot be damaged by carefully evaluated commentary. The search for truth can do many things, but it does not weaken, violate or assault. But sovereignty is indeed threatened when tyranny in one country flings millions of people into flight and turmoil, and fuels the savagery of extremists who respect no laws or borders. Sovereignty is jeopardised when epidemics, unleashed by abject living conditions and failures to ensure health-care, endanger lives everywhere. When leaders responsible for crimes against humanity go unpunished and a culture of impunity feeds future cycles of violent instability across whole regions. When massive floods and endless droughts, kicked up by climate change, modify every parameter of people’s livelihoods regardless of State frontiers. When criminal networks, including human traffickers, are able to operate across countries freely. When corruption and cronyism eat away at the rule of law, the sense of community, the possibility of sustainable development and the legitimacy of government authority. These are factors which truly do endanger the sovereignty of States.
Upholding human rights is intrinsic to the obligations of sovereignty, and constitutes the fundamental basis for a healthy State. The voice of human rights is raised in support of your governance – to assist in building societies that are resilient, peaceful and prosperous.
Instability is expensive. Conflict is expensive. Offering a space for the voices of civil society to air grievances, and work towards solutions is free.
When ordinary people can share ideas to overcome common problems, the result is better, more healthy, more secure and more sustainable States. It is not treachery to identify gaps, and spotlight ugly truths that hold a country back from being more just and more inclusive. When States limit public freedoms and the independent voices of civic activity, they deny themselves the benefits of public engagement, and undermine national security, national prosperity and our collective progress.Civil society – enabled by the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly – is a valuable partner, not a threat.
Yet for several years, I and my predecessor have enumerated at this Council States that have taken extremely serious steps to restrict or persecute the voices of civil society. While I will continue to list them, I am devastated to have to report that there are now too many countries on that list for me to name them here today. This is a grim indictment of our record in protecting that foundation of good governance, the State’s service to its people, and it bodes ill for the future of your societies.
Overly restrictive legislation is enacted to limit the exercise of public freedoms and work by civil society organisations. In many situations, the voices of minority communities are suppressed and their activists and advocates are crushed. Women human rights defenders are targeted for specific attacks, often grounded in harmful and out-dated stereotypes of women’s so-called “place”. Measures are taken to sharply restrict the democratic space online, including blocking of websites and mass surveillance. Several States seem almost to be engaged in a war on information, in which legitimate critics and journalists are targeted for violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, and even murder – particularly those who investigate human rights violations, corruption and malfeasance by officials.
I am, for example, concerned about the detention and interrogation in recent months of more than 100 lawyers in China, in connection with their professional activities, and by the adoption of new laws with far-reaching implications for NGOs. I am also dismayed by the stigmatisation of foreign-funded NGOs in the Russian Federation, where the 2012 law has resulted in marginalising and discrediting organisations that contribute to the public good. I hope that the newly established expert group, consisting of Government officials, parliamentarians and civil society representatives will come up with solutions to this issue. Similar restrictive laws have been adopted in Central Asia, contravening the people’s right to participate in, and criticise, decisions.
Some Member States have sought to prevent civil society actors from working with UN human rights mechanisms, including this Council. Session after session, they attempt to bar from accreditation – based on spurious allegations of terrorist or criminal activity – groups that strive to expose problems and propose remedies. Reprisals have targeted some activists who have participated in Council-related activities, undermining the legitimacy and credibility of the international human rights institutions.
I call for your contributions to my forthcoming report to the Council on good examples in the civil society space. The construction of rule of law institutions that promote governance that is participatory, accountable and transparent. Regulatory frameworks which protect and support the right of grassroots organisations to raise their voices. Positive political and public environments which recognize the value of civic contribution, the free flow of information, and space at the decision-making table. These are the tools that build public confidence and stability in the long term.
The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development constitutes universal recognition that the challenges faced by any one of us may swiftly become crises faced by all. It grasps that these challenges cannot effectively be met by tinkering around the edges of economic, social and political governance, but require a fundamental shift in the dominant development model in all countries. The new Agenda offers real hope for stability, prosperity and conflict prevention. It points to development that is sustainable, equitable for all, environmentally sound, and grounded in human rights. Its promises must be implemented. I have high hopes for the Summit which will convene in New York in a few days, and I note that we may wish to consider how this Council, notably through the UPR, can best contribute to the implementation of this transformative agenda.
In December, the international community will gather for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, an issue so vast and threatening to peace, prosperity, social justice and indeed life itself that it demands we seek solutions together, or face irreparable damage to humanity. Climate change is a threat multiplier, a force that intensifies the likelihood of poverty and deprivation of all kinds; conflict; and the precarious migration of people.
In the Central African Republic, which I visited two weeks ago, the most severe human rights violations have declined significantly since last year. But in several areas armed groups have set themselves up as de facto local authorities, and they continue to operate with almost total impunity. While a few alleged perpetrators have been charged with crimes, for the most part these have been minor figures. The most notorious leaders, with much blood on their hands, remain at liberty. The Government and the UN must do more to support the fight against impunity and to protect people from ongoing threats.It is critical to redress the national justice system and to swiftly set up the Special Criminal Court. Impunity is not the price of political stability; it is a strong driver of conflict.
I am also profoundly concerned about the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of serious human rights violations in Sudan, particularly in Darfur, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan. I urge the international community’s support and assistance to the International Criminal Court. The people of Sudan deserve justice and redress no less than those of other countries.
There has also been near-absolute impunity for violations committed in South Sudan. UNMISS has reported further shocking atrocities in the course of an upsurge in fighting that began in April. I welcome the recent peace agreement and trust that there will be rigorous implementation of its provisions on transitional justice and accountability – including the proposed hybrid court to try serious crimes including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
I remain deeply troubled by allegations of human rights violations in Somalia, by all parties. Violations of freedom of expression, forced evictions of displaced people in Mogadishu, and numerous reported cases of sexual violence also remain major concerns. It is vital to strengthen rule of law institutions to fight against impunity for human rights violations. I urge the Federal Government of Somalia to put human rights at the centre of the political and stabilization agenda, as a pre-condition for real peace.
In Mali,I regret to note that the people’s hope for peace following signature of the Peace and Reconciliation Accord has been tarnished by violation of the ceasefire, and related human rights violations. Further efforts are needed to compel all parties to comply with the Accord, and to ensure protection of the human rights of all Malians.
I continue to be concerned about the situation in Eritrea, where the Commission of Inquiry’s findings suggest that crimes against humanity may have been committed. My Office undertook an assessment mission to Eritrea earlier this year, and we hope that a second mission before the end of the year can find areas where we can cooperate with the authorities to strengthen national protection systems and implement the recommendations of the human rights mechanisms.
As this Council is aware, there have been some 100 deaths and over 600 arrests in the current crisis in Burundi,with over 180,000 people fleeing to neighbouring countries. The democratic space in Burundi has been largely erased, and the consequences for the nation and the Great Lakes region could be disastrous.
I welcome the important agreement between Iran and its international partners on nuclear issues, which promises to engage Iran more closely with the international community and alleviate some of the consequences of sanctions. I urge Iran to make commensurate progress in human rights. Accelerated use of the death penalty, concerns about the right to a fair trial, and the continued detention of journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders remain a major cause for concern.
InMyanmar,the promise of democratic transition in November’s general election is being undermined by the detention and convictions of student activists, farmers, unionists and human rights defenders – people who are using their newfound rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to protest against injustice and participate in the political sphere. I also strongly deplore the disenfranchisement of the majority of Rohingya due to a number of administrative and legal decisions in 2014 and 2015. Dozens of current Members of Parliament from the Muslim community and other minority groups – including prominent Rohingya MPs – have been refused permission to run as candidates because it is claimed that they or their parents are not citizens.
In theMaldives, the rule of law continues to be manipulated for political ends. I was initially encouraged by the Government’s decision, in July, to move former President Nasheed to house arrest, for health reasons and to appeal his conviction after a flawed trial. But the decision to return him to prison last month, and pursuit of a further criminal investigation against his family, are serious setbacks. Given the deeply tainted nature of this case, I urge the Government to release him, and to review several hundred pending criminal cases against opposition supporters in relation to protests in recent months.
In Malaysia, the Government has increasingly sought to restrict public debate and protest around issues of governance and corruption. This effort has included amendments to the 1948 Sedition Act, to further broaden the activities categorized as offenses and introduce harsher penalties, and the arrest of individuals for tweeting criticism of corruption by officials or the policies of the Government or malfeasance by officials. It is unfortunate that such a confident and dynamic country should feel the need to intimidate critical voices.
The Australian government has recently decided to resettle more refugees from Syria. Yet the Government continues to restrict independent monitoring of detention centres for asylum seekers arriving by boat. Their access to medical care, independent legal counselling and journalists has also been curtailed. One consequence is that the public is misinformed about the situation in immigration centres.
I have also been concerned with the recent violence in the Terai region of Nepal, which has led to the death and injury of protestors and security personnel, as well as reported attacks against human rights defenders and journalists. I urge all political leaders to work together to address differences over the proposed constitution peacefully, and to ensure that the security forces uphold human rights at all times.
I am disturbed by the recent collective deportation of more than one thousand Colombians from Venezuela. My Office has been informed that this involved human rights violations, including lack of due process, destruction of property and separation of children from their families. The deportees may include large numbers of people in need of international protection. This deportation has generated such fear that thousands more have spontaneously fled. I urge the authorities to take immediate measures to guarantee family reunification and to prevent further abuse of Colombians.
My Office also continues to follow up the Dominican Republic‘s deportations of people of Haitian descent. I continue to urge the authorities to ensure that those with a valid claim to remain are allowed to do so, and that any deportation is carried out in line with international human rights standards.
Immigration has also been the object of shameless political grand-standing in the United States. I also remain very concerned about persistent discrimination against African-Americans. Repeated acts of violence have highlighted racial biases in law enforcement, criminal justice and other areas. I encourage the US, and indeed all States, to take advantage of the programme of activities of the International Decade for People of African Descent to strengthen efforts to combat racial discrimination in the justice system, housing, employment, education, health and political participation.
The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine reported last week that almost 8,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict in April last year. I am alarmed by the shelling of residential areas on both sides of the contact line, with only partial withdrawal of heavy weapons from the area as foreseen in the Minsk Agreements. Civilians living near the contact line endure extreme hardship, including limited access to food and water. At the same time, I welcome the recent adoption of a national human rights strategy, and the on-going development of a national human rights action plan by Ukraine. ASG Simonovic will be further updating this Council on 29 September, under item 10.
In the Republic of Moldova, I urge immediate responses, grounded in human rights, to address people’s grievances regarding grave mismanagement of public funds, lack of transparency, and failures of information, participation and accountability. If not addressed properly, these concerns could lead to greater polarization of society, the deterioration of human rights, and dangerous political and economic instability.
I remain concerned about the continued social exclusion and forced evictions of Roma in several countries, including Bulgaria and France.
In Guatemala,massive demonstrations protesting corruption by officials recently resulted in the resignation and subsequent arrests of the Vice-President and the President. Elections which took place a week ago were largely peaceful, with a high turnout of voters and strong demands for an urgent and comprehensive reform of the State. My Office stands ready to assist reforms, which I hope will be carried out in the very near future.
Anti-corruption protests have been taking place in Honduras since May. I welcome the President’s call for “unconditional dialogue” with protesters and plans to crack down on graft in politics and in the judiciary.
In Ecuador, recent demonstrations have sparked excessive use of force by police and possibly arbitrary detentions. I remind the Government that the people have a right to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and of expression.
One year ago, 43 students disappeared in Mexico, and were likely murdered by criminal gangs connected to corrupt officials. I welcome the Mexican Government’s decision to seek the assistance of the Inter-American Commission, through its Interdisciplinary Group of Experts. Their report has provided authorities with important recommendations that I trust will be comprehensively followed-up, in order to refocus the investigation, scrutinise the responsibility of authorities at all levels, and establish the truth.
Long-standing disputes over indigenous land continue to cause suffering and loss of life in Brazil. I note in particular the killing of a leader of the Guarani-Kaiowa people last month, and I urge the authorities to not only investigate this death, but also to take far-reaching action to halt further evictions and properly demarcate all land.
The situation in Iraq remains of serious concern. Although government and associated military forces have reclaimed some territory from ISIL, the group still retains control of a large area. More than three million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes since June 2014, with heavy loss of civilian life. Large numbers of women and children remain enslaved by ISIL, which also continues to violently abuse minorities and critics in areas under its control, and to perpetrate terrorist attacks in other areas of the country. In areas reclaimed from ISIL, civilians are subject to armed militias, which perpetrate killings, kidnappings and destruction of property. You will be further updated on Iraq later in this session.
The situation on the ground in Yemen continues to be a cause for serious concern. My Office has found that over 2,000 civilians have been killed and more than 4,000 wounded. The humanitarian crisis continues to deepen, with estimates that as many as 21 million Yemenis – 80% of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance. Credible allegations of human rights violations by all parties to the conflict should be thoroughly examined by an independent and comprehensive body. In this regard I welcome the announcement by the Yemeni authorities to set up an investigative body to examine all these allegations, and I strongly urge revival of the talks between the exiled government and the Houthis.
All of us are aware of the deepening nightmare that is Syria. Violating the prohibition of use of chemical weapons; the prohibition of torture; every norm intended to protect civilians; and, more broadly, every principle of human rights, such relentless, long-lasting and vicious violence bites deeply into the sense of community that underpins peace and well-being in our world. The international community – and specifically the Security Council – has great power and influence over this terrible conflict, and it must now urgently find the consensus to act. I also urge in the strongest possible terms an immediate end to the devastating obstruction of humanitarian aid to the people of Syria and of Yemen. There should be far greater concern for the protection of civilians, as laid down by international humanitarian law.
In Libya, we continue to see indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects through the use of imprecise weaponry in densely-populated areas; destruction of homes; summary executions and arbitrary detention; and torture and other ill-treatment, in some cases leading to death. Impunity is near-absolute, and migrants, refugees, women human rights defenders, the internally displaced and religious minorities are intensely vulnerable to violations. The Assistant Secretary General will further update you on our concerns in the course of this session.
I am profoundly dismayed by the persistence of serious human rights concerns in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. A permanent and just resolution must be found to this long-standing conflict and occupation, in line with international norms. I note the spike in killings of Palestinians in incidents involving Israeli security forces in the West Bank over the past two months, which raise concern of excessive use of force, and the murderous arson of a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma – sadly not the only act of violence against Palestinian homes in recent months. I am also concerned by an increasingly restrictive atmosphere in Israel, including for those who are critical of Israeli occupation policies and practices, and by legislation that enables financial penalisation of those who advocate for boycotts of Israeli settlements.
My Office has recently conducted missions to Morocco, to Western Sahara, and to the Saharan refugee camps near Tindouf, in Algeria, to gather greater understanding of the human rights situation and challenges in that region, and explore ways for cooperation to ensure effective human rights protection for all. Respect for the rights of the Saharan population remains essential to achieving resolution of this long-standing dispute.
Six years ago, we were confronted with serious violations and loss of civilian life in the last months of Sri Lanka‘s long civil war. This Council has been deeply engaged with the need for accountability, as a necessary step towards reconciliation in that country. On Wednesday I will release the report of the comprehensive investigation that OHCHR was mandated to conduct in March 2014, including my recommendations. Its findings are of the most serious nature. I welcome the vision shown by President Sirisena since his election in January 2015, and the commitments made by the new Government under his leadership. But this Council owes it to Sri Lankans – and to its own credibility – to ensure an accountability process that produces results, decisively moves beyond the failures of the past, and brings the deep institutional changes needed to guarantee non-recurrence.
In the course of my mission to the Central African Republic earlier this month, new allegations came to light regarding the sexual exploitation of a minor by a member of the Sangaris force. Although this was not a UN peacekeeping operation, I strongly believe that the time has come for Member States to take decisive action regarding investigation and courts-martial of peacekeepers involved in such abuses – in line with the recommendations that I made ten years ago, as adviser to the Secretary-General on this topic, and recommendations made by the High Level Panel on Peace Operations.
In June I travelled to Seoul to open OHCHR’s new office. As mandated by this Council, it will be a hub for monitoring, reporting and engagement on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Ilook forward to updating Council members later in the session. Allow me to note also that at the request of this Council, I intend to send a mission to South Sudan in October.
Later in this session, we will update you on human rights developments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,Libya and Ukraine, and on violations and atrocities committed by Boko Haram. My office will present reports on human rights in Yemen, technical assistance toIraq, and the work of the Office in Cambodia.
Additionally, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will be presenting the ‘UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Remedies and Procedures on the Right of Anyone Deprived of their Liberty by Arrest or Detention to Bring Proceedings before Court.’ This new protection tool, which was developed at the request of this Council through extensive global consultation, compiles and complements the existing norms of international law, standards and jurisprudence. I congratulate the Working Group on this essential contribution to the protection of any person against arbitrary detention, including secret detention, prolonged incommunicado detention, enforced disappearances, and torture.
Far too few of us are aware of the specific human rights violations faced by millions of intersex people. Because their bodies don’t comply with typical definitions of male or female, intersex children and adults are frequently subjected to forced sterilization and other unnecessary and irreversible surgery, and suffer discrimination in schools, workplaces and other settings. We plan an expert meeting to identify steps that States and others can take to end these abuses.
On 13 July I gave Member States a comprehensive briefing on the OHCHR Change Initiative. I emphasized that our planned regional hubs will position the Office to work more closely with Member States, ensuring real universality and facilitating greater support for this Council’s recommendations. The hubs will better balance our work geographically, and they will require no rise in our regular budget resources. In fact, decentralising resources will result in savings that will be reinvested, to strengthenthe support we are able to provide.
It is in this context that I appeal to Member States to endorse OHCHR’s regular budget proposal for 2016-2017, amounting to $198.7 million. I believe that this budget request should be considered minimal, in regard to the breadth and depth of the work we do, and it reflects a very significant effort to make the Office more efficient and more cost-effective. We count on your Governments to assist, and in the coming weeks I will follow up with many of you in this regard.
A cadence of anniversaries, beginning a year ago with the end of World War 1 and tolling through the past months, with the liberation of Auschwitz and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, calls us to revisit the lessons that led to the founding of our institution. Those lessons cannot die with the generation that lived through those wars. They teach us, not only pity and horror for such atrocious suffering and broken lives; not only admiration for extraordinary individual courage and resilience; but wisdom, the difficult lessons of statesmanship.
In recent months, I have also given deep thought to the acts of genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica. I have been privileged to share a conversation with three elderly South Korean victims of wartime sexual slavery who deserve the dignity of real acknowledgment of what they were forced to endure. And like so many, I have been moved to profound sorrow by the plight of the little boy on the beach, who represents in his life and death the injustices suffered by so many others.
Our lives are connected to one another. Actions and decisions in one country affect many other States; they shake the lives of many people, no less important and no less human than you and I. When the fundamental principles of human rights are not protected, the centre of our institution no longer holds. It is they that promote development that is sustainable; peace that is secure; and lives of dignity.
Note: The Advocates for Human Rights’ delegation, comprised of volunteers and staff, will be in Geneva to participate in the 30th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. There, the delegation will put pressure on countries to effectively respond to gender-based violence and to end the death penalty. The delegation will also advocate on issues related to diaspora.
While the use of death penalty is decreasing worldwide, 22 countries carried out executions and 57 imposed death sentences in 2012.
Execution methods range from lethal injection to the firing squad, but hanging remains the most common method. Some countries, including Iran, continue to use stoning, a practice based on Iranian interpretation of sharia, as an execution method for non-violent crimes such as adultery.
As someone who is from a Muslim country, I was shocked to learn that stoning exists in Iran’s penal code and is carried out in public. I became aware of the severity of the death penalty in Iran and the United States during The Advocates for Human Rights’ January 22 training on death penalty advocacy for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Led by Jennifer Prestholdt, Rosalyn Park, and Amy Bergquist, the training addressed civil society’s role in advocating against the death penalty by participating in the UPR process. The training also surveyed a long list of death penalty issues in countries around the world, including:
capital punishment for non-violent and other less serious crimes;
imposition of the death penalty on child offenders and people with mental disabilities and mental disorders;
mandatory imposition of the death penalty for certain crimes;
limitations on the right to appeal a conviction in capital cases;
use of torture to extract confessions and in the process of imposing the death sentence;
death row conditions; and
The Universal Periodic Review
The Universal Periodic Review is the UN Human Rights Council’s “peer review” mechanism for monitoring human rights around the world. The UPR is a periodic review of human rights in all UN member states. During the “interactive dialogue” of the UPR, UN member states can make recommendations to the state under review. NGOs and other groups can submit “stakeholder reports” and then later lobby to try to influence those recommendations:
The training presented best practices for writing stakeholder reports and working with partner organizations in bringing their issues to the United Nations for the UPR. The presenters emphasized the importance of ensuring that information in stakeholder reports is accurate and useful. They also highlighted the importance of proposing powerful, effective recommendations.
The Advocates regularly submits UPR stakeholder reports to address human rights issues. Recently, while assisting with a report on the death penalty for the UPR of Lebanon, I discovered that executions in Lebanon are commonly linked to poverty. The spillovers from the Syrian civil war and the so-called Islamic State make Lebanon politically unstable; the resulting humanitarian crisis may increase the likelihood of Lebanon imposing death sentences for crimes arising out of poverty.
People from around the world joined the training
In advance of the training, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty notified its members that they could participate remotely through a live weblink and dial-in line. Representatives from an impressive list of NGOs — including Kisarawe Paralegals Organization (Tanzania), MRU Youth Parliament (Sierra Leone), ECPM (France), Lifespark (Switzerland), Lawyers Without Borders (Nigeria), Rescue Alternatives (Liberia), Coalition Mauritanienne contre la peine de mort (Mauritania), ACAT (Liberia), and Droits et Paix (Cameroon) — registered to attend the training remotely.
An alliance of more than 150 NGOs, bar associations, local authorities, and unions, the World Coalition’s works to strengthen the international dimension of the fight against the death penalty. The Advocates serves on the organization’s steering committee, and partners with World Coalition members based in countries that retain the death penalty to collaboratively advocate at the United Nations.
If you missed the training or want to see it again, you may access the video here: