Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights sets out the minimum standards for those countries that retain the death penalty, which include:
- death should only be imposed for the 'most serious crimes'
- there must be a process of appeal and clemency
- pregnant women may not be executed.
- juveniles (under 18 years old) may not be executed.
In 1984, the UN Economic and Social Council adopted the Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of those Facing the Death Penalty (UN Doc E/RES/1984/50). Those minimum safeguards strengthened and explain Article 6 of the ICCPR.
In 1989, the UN Economic and Social Council passed another resolution calling upon countries that retain the death penalty to implement the Safeguards: Implementation of the Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of those Facing the Death Penalty (UN Doc E/RES/1989/64).
The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights commits signatory nations to the abolition of the death penalty. Australia acceded to this Optional Protocol on 2 October 1990. The Protocol entered into force in international law on 11 July 1991.
On 18th December 2007, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty (A/RES/62/149). The resolution was passed with 104 votes for, 54 against and 29 abstentions. Australia voted in favour of the resolution.
Resolution (E/CN.4/RES/2005/59) of the UN Commission of Human Rights on the death penalty was sponsored and supported by Australia, and passed on 20 April 2005. It notes that the general trend towards the abolition of the death penalty should continue, with more and more countries ratifying the Second Optional Protocol.
In February 2006, the UN Secretary-General released the UN report Question of the Death Penalty. It notes that the international trend towards the abolition of the death penalty continues.
In December 2012, the General Assembly passed a further Moratorium on the Use of the Death Penalty.
On the 2nd July 2014, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon made statements to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stating that there should be an absolute ban on the death penalty, Read more.
Second Optional Protocol
The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty entered into force in international law on 11 July 1991. As at July 2014, it has thirty-seven signatories and eighty-one state parties. (‘signing’ a treaty is the first step in ratifying it, but does not bind the signatory country.) Australia simultaneously signed and ratified the protocol on 2 October 1990. The Second Optional Protocol prohibits the execution of anyone under the law of a ratifying country. The protocol also implicitly prohibits the reintroduction of the death penalty. Find out more about which countries have ratified this treaty here.
According to the former Foreign Minister, Mr Alexander Downer:
"Australia encourages universal ratification of the Second Optional Protocol of 1989 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which requires states-parties to abolish the death penalty within their jurisdictions."
Hansard, House of Reps, 16 August 2006, 222
If you want to read more about the Second Optional Protocol, you can read CCL's background paper.