Thursday, July 23, 2015

UN rights experts hail Zambia’s move away from death penalty, but warn of “areas of concern” in Africa

Two United Nations human rights experts welcomed a recent decision by the President of Zambia, Edgar Lungui, to commute the death sentences of 332 individuals to life imprisonment. The UN Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, Christof Heyns, and on torture, Juan E. Méndez, also encouraged the Zambian authorities “to take a step further by removing all reference to the death penalty in the country’s laws.”   

President Lungui commuted the sentences after his visit to Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison, which despite a capacity of 51 inmates, houses hundreds. 
“By commuting these death sentences, the Zambia puts a stop to mental and physical pain and suffering, and takes an important step towards ensuring respect for the inherent dignity of the human person,” Mr. Mendez said. 

“This decision is in line with the trend in Africa – as in the rest of the world – to move away from the death penalty. As the Secretary General of the UN has said, there is no room for this form of punishment in the 21st Century,” Mr Heyns said. 

However, the experts warned of continuing areas of concern regarding the death penalty in Africa. In Egypt, they noted, hundreds of defendants at a time are sentenced to death in unfair mass trials. “Even though the execution rate is lower, these trials clearly do not meet international standards,” they said. 

The situation in the Gambia is also worrying: after abruptly ending a longstanding moratorium and hanging nine people in 2012, it has now been proposed that the number of offenses punishable by death be expanded. “This proposal, if adopted, would be in stark contrast to the trend away from capital punishment elsewhere on the continent,” they underlined. 

The independent experts noted that President Lungui’s decision supports previous steps towards the abolition of capital punishment in the Zambia, where a presidential moratorium on the death penalty has been maintained since 1997. However, they called on the Zambian authorities to vote in favour of the UN General Assembly’s resolution calling for a global moratorium, rather than abstaining, as they have in the previous four votes. 

According to the Special Rapporteurs, three-quarters of the world States have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice and the same applies to Africa. In 2014 only four States in the region are known to have conducted executions. Earlier this month, the Togolese Republic became Africa’s 12th state party to the 2nd Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at the abolition of the death penalty. 

Moreover, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has consistently called for the abolition of the death penalty over the last two decades. The Commission has drafted a Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Abolition of the Death Penalty. 

“These are very significant steps by the Commission, and if the Protocol is adopted soon by the African Union and opened for ratification by African States, that will give a renewed emphasis to the process of putting the era of the death penalty behind us,” the UN experts stressed. 

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