Briefing to the 59th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights
The Death Penalty and Juvenile Offenders
Human Rights Watch calls on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to condemn the execution of juvenile offenders in those few states that retain the practice in an omnibus children's resolution, a resolution on extrajudicial, arbitrary and summary executions, and any resolution on the death penalty. The Commission should clearly state that the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders is expressly prohibited by international human rights treaties and that the prohibition on such executions is so widely observed that it has attained the status of a peremptory norm of international law. The Commission should also call on those very few remaining countries where juvenile offenders are subject to the death penalty to put an immediate end to the practice and ensure that their legal codes do not permit the execution of persons who were under age eighteen at the time of the offense for which they were convicted.
Over the past three years, only the United States, the Democratic Republic of
Congo, Pakistan, and Iran have imposed the death penalty on juvenile
offenders. The Democratic Republic of Congo executed a fourteen-year-old in
2000. Iran has executed two juvenile offenders in the last three years, one
in 2000 and another in 2001. Also in 2001, Pakistan reportedly executed a
juvenile offender for a crime he committed at the age of thirteen.
The latter three countries have since repudiated the practice of putting
juvenile offenders to death. In a particularly welcome step, Pakistan
removed seventy-four juvenile offenders from its death row in 2002; an
earlier change in its legislation abolished the death penalty for juvenile
offenders convicted after July 2001. And both the Democratic Republic of
Congo and Iran have publicly disavowed the use of the death penalty on those
who were children at the time of their crimes.
In 2002, three juvenile executions were known to have taken place, all in the
U.S. state of Texas. Since 1990, the United States has put eighteen juvenile
offenders to death, well over half the worldwide total. Outside the United
States, a total of fourteen juvenile offenders were executed during the same
The execution of juvenile offenders remains legal in twenty-two U.S. states, and seven states have actually carried out such death sentences in the past twenty-six years. Texas has executed thirteen juvenile offenders. Virginia has put three juvenile offenders to death: two in 2000 and one in 1998. The states of Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina have each executed one juvenile offender. Eighty-three juvenile offenders were on death row in fifteen states as of November 2002. Texas accounted for nearly one third of the national total, with twenty-seven juvenile offenders on death row.
The state of Oklahoma has set an April 3 execution date for Scott Hain after the U.S. Supreme Court turned down his request for it to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty for those under the age of eighteen at the time of their crimes. In Mississippi, Ronald Chris Foster is also nearing the end of his appeals. The Mississippi governor granted him a reprieve two days before he was to have been put to death in what would have been the state's first execution of a juvenile offender in over fifty years. The governor's action will stay Foster's execution until his case can be considered by the state supreme court.
As these data show, the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders is restricted to a small number of U.S. states. The trend elsewhere in the country has been to raise the minimum age for capital punishment. Indiana abolished the death penalty for juvenile offenders in 2002, as did Montana in 1999. Similar measures are being considered in at least nine other U.S. states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Even in Texas, lawmakers are having second thoughts about allowing juvenile offenders to be put to death. In the last legislative session, a measure that would have raised the minimum age for capital punishment to eighteen passed in the Texas House of Representatives and would have been approved by the state Senate if Governor Rick Perry had not threatened to veto it.
Death is an inhumane punishment, particularly for someone who was a child at the time of his crimes. Children are different from adults. They lack the experience, judgment, maturity, and restraint of an adult. With help, even the most errant can be rehabilitated. As the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in 1988 when it struck down the death penalty for fifteen-year-olds in Thompson v. Oklahoma, "The reasons why juveniles are not trusted with the privileges and responsibilities of an adult also explain why their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of any adult."
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child expressly forbid capital punishment for offenders who were under the age of eighteen at the time of the offenses of which they were convicted. The prohibition on the execution of juvenile offenders is so widely observed that it has attained the status of a peremptory norm of international law, meaning that it is a binding obligation superior to other law. The United States is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, although it purports to reserve the right to impose capital punishment on juvenile offenders. The Human Rights Committee, the treaty body charged with monitoring compliance with the Covenant, has concluded that the U.S. reservation is incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty and therefore void as a matter of international law.
The Commission on Human Rights should:
- Condemn the execution of juvenile offenders as a violation of human rights. Resolutions should state clearly that the imposition of the death penalty on persons who were under eighteen years old at the time of their crimes is expressly prohibited under international human rights law.
- Urge those few countries that retain capital punishment for juvenile offenders to put an immediate end to the practice. Resolutions should also call on governments to ensure that their legal codes do not permit the execution of persons who were under eighteen at the time of their offenses, even in cases where existing legal authority is not currently being used.
February 27, 2003
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