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The right to life and the progressive abolition of the death penalty (Prof Christof Heyns and Dr Thomas Probert)

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:25 AM
6th November 2015


In New York yesterday, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched the UN’s latest publication on the global status of the death penalty.  The book, Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends and Perspectives, includes a chapter co-authored by UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns and CGHR Research Associate Thomas Probert on ‘The right to life and the progressive abolition of the death penalty’.

The chapter begins from an understanding of the place of the death penalty within the scope of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (discussed in detail in CGHR’s study on Unlawful Killings in Africa). The authors briefly survey the global decline of the practice of the death penalty, before describing the evolving treatment of the question within international law.

[G]iven the shift that has taken place in state practice, it seems accurate to say that the mandate of the special rapporteur is at least progressively abolitionist. For the same reason, it is no longer necessary to state in an unqualified manner that the death penalty per se is not contrary to the requirements of international law. Over the past several years, the perspective has emerged that international law requires the progressive abolition of the death penalty. This is not to say that it requires immediate compliance, as is usually the case with civil and political rights. Instead, the drafting history suggests that international law requires at least the gradual, progressive abolition of the death penalty, as is often the case with socio-economic rights.

In general, the collection launched by the UN today conveys very much the same message.  As the Secretary General said, “I will never stop calling for an end to the death penalty…  This book contains a great deal of information – but it makes no prediction on when the death penalty will be abolished globally. That is up to us.”


Read the UN Secretary General's statement here.

Read the e-book here.