Press Release

IACHR Urges OAS Member States to Abolish the Death Penalty

October 10, 2014

On the occasion of the International Day against the Death Penalty, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urges member States of the Organization of American States (OAS) that retain the death penalty to abolish it, or to impose a moratorium on its application as a step toward abolition, and to ensure full compliance with decisions of the IACHR concerning death penalty cases.

The Western hemisphere has a long abolitionist tradition. Venezuela was the first country in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes in 1863, followed by Costa Rica as the third country in 1877. The inter-American human rights system has played an important role in the development of international standards regarding the application of the death penalty. The IACHR was the first international human rights body to evaluate the human rights implications of the mandatory death penalty, concluding that it is incompatible with the rights to life, humane treatment and due process. The Commission drew on standards developed by national courts, as well as fundamental human rights principles. The decisions of the IACHR and the Inter-American Court have provided key standards for legal reform. Following the decisions of the system, most of the English-speaking Caribbean countries abolished the mandatory death penalty. There is an urgent need or Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, the only two countries in the region that retain the mandatory death penalty, to abolish it.

While a majority of the member States of the OAS has abolished capital punishment, a substantial minority retains it. The United States is currently the only country in the Western hemisphere to carry out executions. The IACHR notes, however, that the application of capital punishment in the United States has been gradually diminishing. In 2013, 39 executions were carried out, down from 43 in 2012, and the number of executions in the past ten years has halved. Further, in 2013 public support for capital punishment in the United States has reportedly dwindled to its lowest level. The Commission highlights the fact that, since Michigan abolished the death penalty in 1847, seventeen states and the District of Columbia have joined it. Maryland was the eighteenth state to abolish capital punishment in 2013. Others, such as Colorado, Delaware, Oregon and New Hampshire, are moving closer to abolition. On the other hand, the inclusion of acts of terrorism within the scope of crimes carrying the death penalty by the state of Mississippi in 2013 constitutes a setback in the gradual disappearance of the death penalty in the country.

As part of its mandate to monitor the human rights situation in the United States and through its individual case system, the IACHR has received troubling information on numerous defects in the application of the death penalty. Among the most recurring problems are racial discrimination, violation of the right to consular notification and assistance, application of the death penalty to persons with mental and intellectual disabilities, conditions of confinement on death row, defects in lethal injection practices, and the ineffective assistance of court-appointed counsel. With regard to the latter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial.”

On May 2, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama raised significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied: “In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems – racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, you know, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence.” The IACHR notes that 145 death row inmates have been exonerated in the United States. The last exoneration took place in September 2014 in North Carolina when Henry Lee McCollum, an African-American man with an intellectual disability, was freed after spending 31 years on death row, all his adult life, for a crime he did not commit. As Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy stated when signing the bill abolishing the death penalty in his state, “doing away with the death penalty [is] the only way to ensure it [will] not be unfairly imposed.”

The Inter-American Commission reiterates the recommendation made in its report “The Death Penalty in the Inter-American Human Rights System: From Restrictions to Abolition” published in 2012, that States impose a moratorium on executions as a step toward the gradual disappearance of this penalty. The IACHR welcomes that eighteen states and the District of Columbia have already abolished the death penalty in their jurisdictions and that some states have a moratorium imposed by the governor or the courts. The Commission hopes that the rest of the states will follow in the abolition of or moratorium on the death penalty and encourages the OAS member States that still have the death penalty to abolish it and to ensure full compliance with the decisions of the IACHR concerning death penalty cases. The IACHR welcomes the fact that a bill contemplating the abolition of the death penalty is pending before the National Assembly of Suriname and hopes that it will be promptly approved. This is a unique opportunity for the English-speaking Caribbean to make an important step toward the abolition of the death penalty.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 115/14