IACHR Urges States to Abolish Death Penalty or Impose a Moratorium on its Application
October 9 , 2013
Washington, D.C. – On the occasion of the International Day against the Death Penalty, to be marked October 10, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urges the OAS Member States that still have the death penalty to abolish it or at least to impose a moratorium on its application.
The regional instruments for protection of human rights do not prohibit per se the imposition of the death penalty, but they establish specific restrictions and prohibitions regarding its application. The American Convention on Human Rights establishes provisions required to limit its application, with the aim of achieving its gradual disappearance. In this regard, the IACHR points to a clear global trend toward abolishing the death penalty, based on recent developments in this matter at the United Nations, in regional systems for the protection of human rights, and in international criminal law.
In this sense, the IACHR urges the States to ratify the Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty; to refrain from adopting any measure that would expand the application of the death penalty or reintroduce it; to take any measures necessary to ensure compliance with the strictest standards of due process in cases involving the application of the death penalty; to adopt any steps required to ensure that domestic legal standards conform to the heightened level of review applicable in death penalty cases; and to ensure full compliance with decisions of the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and specifically with decisions concerning individual death penalty cases and precautionary and provisional measures. These recommendations were included in the report “The Death Penalty in the Inter-American Human Rights System: From Restrictions to Abolition," which was approved by the IACHR on December 31, 2011, and published on August 3, 2012.
Restrictive Trends in the Application of the Death Penalty
While capital punishment remains a pressing challenge, the region has seen significant changes, including reforms to restrict the types of crimes and circumstances in which the death penalty can be applied, as well as explicit or de facto moratoriums.
Of particular importance have been advances in Caribbean countries related to the mandatory imposition of the death penalty, that is, when it is imposed after a criminal conviction without the opportunity for presenting or considering mitigating circumstances. The development of inter-American standards establishing that the death penalty contravenes the American Convention and the American Declaration, as well as interaction between the inter-American human rights bodies and the judicial bodies of the Commonwealth Caribbean, among other factors, have led to progress in the elimination of the mandatory death penalty in the majority of the countries of the Caribbean. The IACHR expects that additional progress will be made in this direction until mandatory imposition of this punishment is abolished in all the countries of the region.
Moreover, some progress has been made in the United States. For example, of the 18 U.S. states that have abolished the death penalty, 6 did so in the past six years. In about one third of the states where the laws still provide for the death penalty, it is not applied in practice. Additionally, the number of executions fell, from 85 in 2000 to 43 in 2012, and the number of states in which they were carried out also dropped, to 13 in 2011 and 9 in 2012.
More recently, the justice system commuted a death sentence against Virgilio Maldonado to life imprisonment, by virtue of his mental disabilities. Virgilio Maldonado's case had been submitted to the IACHR on December 9, 2011, and was declared admissible on March 29, 2012. A Texas court concluded on December 13, 2012, that Virgil Maldonado has "mental retardation" and therefore is not eligible for execution, a decision upheld by the Court of Appeals on May 22, 2013.
Worrisome Challenges in the Application of the Death Penalty
The IACHR is concerned about the persistence of significant and worrisome challenges regarding the application of the death penalty in the region. In particular, the IACHR notes that OAS Member States have executed individuals sentenced to death in defiance of precautionary measures granted by the Commission or provisional measures granted by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the context of cases or petitions alleging serious violations to due process, among other violations. This undermines the effectiveness of the process before the Commission and causes irreparable harm to those individuals, in violation of States’ international human rights obligations.
The most recent execution known to the Commission is that of Robert Gene Garza, who was executed in Texas on September 19, 2013, although he had been granted precautionary measures by the IACHR. The Commission condemns this execution, which deprived him of his right to petition in the inter-American human rights system. The Commission urges the United States to implement the precautionary measures that are granted, and reiterates that the government is obligated to fully respect its international human rights obligations set forth in the American Declaration.
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 matter. 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.