Global Ethics Corner: Should the UN Condemn the Death Penalty?

October 29, 2012

In her address to the American Bar Association, Navi Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, made an eloquent case for ethics in international affairs. But among her remarks was a not-so-subtle critique of the United States and its policy of capital punishment. In so doing, the high commissioner weighed in on a controversial debatenot only about the ethics of the death penalty, but also about the UN’s role as an advocate for legislative changes in international law.    

The death penalty has long been a controversial form of punishment. But it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that nations abolished the practice en masse. Today, close to 100 countries have outlawed the death penalty. Forty-two more have it on the books, but don’t use it.   

That makes the U.S. a member of a small—and mainly infamous—minority. Just 58 states, including China, Iran, Belarus, and Yemen, still enforce the death penalty. The U.S. is the lone G8 state still using it. But death penalty advocates have no problem with this. They say capital punishment is not only morally justified as punishment for heinous crimes but it’s also effective. They argue that those put to death can never violate the law again and capital punishment serves as a warning to others, helping to deter crime. What’s more, they point out that the death penalty does not in fact violate existing human rights law.

Despite this, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly called for a moratorium. And in calling out the United States, High Commissioner Pillay actively criticized the U.S. for what she believes is an unethical practice.

Which raises the question: Is the UN right to condemn the death penalty—even if it abides by international law? Or should it stay within the confines of existing human rights legislation, and leave the advocacy of legislative changes to others? What do you think?  

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

David Bosco, "Should the UN campaign against the death penalty?," Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011

"Abolish the Death Penalty," Amnesty International, 2011

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:
UN Photo Geneva [also for picture 12]
World Coalition Against the Death Penalty
Dan Patterson
W. M. Vander Weyde
Guillaume Colin & Pauline Perot
Kerry L. Williams
Matthew High
Drake Goodman
Rob Smith
Mihai Romanciuc
Val Kerry

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