Right to life – the death penalty

According to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. As yet, there is no general prohibition against the death penalty in international law. In Sweden’s view, the death penalty is a deeply inhuman punishment that should be abolished.

Article 3 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. According to Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to life is to be protected by law. The same Article prohibits states from arbitrarily depriving persons of their lives. Article 2 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms contains similar provisions on the right to life.

The death penalty
As yet, there is no general prohibition against the death penalty in international law. There are, however, a number of restrictions on its application and an emphatic call to work for the total abolition of the death penalty. The relevant standards are Article 3 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the right to life and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also this on the right to life. The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has adopted safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty.

After an interval of ten years, the UN General Assembly Third Committee has, in the past few years, adopted resolutions that call upon all countries that still impose the death penalty to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to totally abolishing the death penalty. States are also requested to report to the Secretary-General on how procedural safeguards for persons facing the death penalty are applied and to publish information on how the death penalty is applied. The resolutions have been presented by a group of countries from all parts of the world in which the EU has been proactive.

The issue of abolishing capital punishment still faces strong resistance among UN Member States and the resolutions have generated a number of hostile amendments and referendums. The number of unfavourable votes have declined however, while the number of co-sponsors has risen. The UN Commission on Human Rights (now replaced by UN Human Rights Council) has also adopted resolutions on the death penalty, most recently in 2005. The Council has subsequently also requested reports from the Secretary-General on application of the death penalty. 

Juveniles and the death penalty
International law contains standards on application of the death penalty to minors. According to Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age. The same prohibition is stipulated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 37.

The Second Optional Protocol to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prescribes the abolition of the death penalty in peacetime. More than one-quarter of the UN Member States have acceded to this protocol. The situation is considerably more positive in Europe where almost all states have acceded to Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms which prohibits the death penalty in peacetime. Protocol No. 13 to the Convention, adopted in 2002 at the initiative of Sweden, extends to include the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances, even in wartime.

An inhuman punishment
Sweden has long worked actively at international level for the total abolition of the death penalty. In Sweden’s view, the death penalty is an inhuman, cruel and irreversible punishment that has no place in a modern legal system, and its abolition is a prioritised task for the Government in efforts to promote and increase respect for human rights. Sweden is working actively to persuade states that still include the death penalty as part of their legislation to change their attitude. This work is conducted both within different multilateral fora – primarily in the UN, but also in the Council of Europe, within the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and in bilateral contacts. Much of the work today is coordinated within the EU in accordance with the EU Guidelines against the death penalty vis-à-vis third countries which was adopted by the EU General Affairs Council in June 1998. The General Affairs Council has also adopted provisions on trading in goods that can be used to carry out capital punishment, torture or other cruel or inhuman treatment or punishment.

Executions without a trial
Extrajudicial and arbitrary executions and threats of such abuse occur today in all parts of the world, according to the UN Special Rapporteur for these issues. The executions are often carried out with a government’s consent outside the legal framework by a country’s police or security force, or other persons or groups that cooperate with, or are tolerated by, the country’s government and are subsequently crimes against the right to life. For the past ten years or so, Sweden together with the other Nordic countries in the UN General Assembly Third Committee has been pushing for a resolution on summary executions in the UN Human Rights Council.