(New York) - As UN member states begin three days of debate on the rights of the child, more than 300 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from 82 countries called on the UN General Assembly to take urgent action to end executions for crimes committed by children, Human Rights Watch said today.
The vast majority of states enforce the absolute prohibition on the death penalty for individuals who committed crimes as children, in compliance with international law. But the overall number of such executions has been rising. Five countries - Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan and Yemen - have carried out 32 of these executions since January 2005, and have well over 100 other juvenile offenders on death row.
"Groups from all over the world are saying that these executions are an outrage," said Clarisa Bencomo, researcher on children's rights for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. "The General Assembly should demand that countries stop these killings immediately and pass reforms so that no one is ever again executed for a crime committed as a child."
Iran has been at the forefront of the recent rise in executions of juvenile offenders. Between 2000 and 2004, five states are known to have executed 18 juvenile offenders, with the nine executions in the United States and five in Iran accounting for the majority. The United States ended the juvenile death penalty in March 2005, but since January 2005, Iran has been responsible for 26 of the 32 executions of juvenile offenders worldwide. NGOs in all five countries that currently execute juvenile offenders are among those seeking General Assembly action, and the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi endorsed their statement.
On October 15, 2008, the UN General Assembly will begin its annual debate on the rights of the child. Past General Assembly resolutions have included a broad call for states to comply with their international treaty obligations to end the juvenile death penalty, but with language so general that even states that execute juvenile offenders supported the measures.
The NGO petition is co-sponsored by the Child Rights Information Network and Human Rights Watch. The petition urges UN member states to recognize the urgency of the current situation by calling for an immediate moratorium on all executions of juvenile offenders and commutation of existing death sentences to custodial or other sentences in conformity with international juvenile justice standards. States that prohibit the death penalty for juvenile offenders should ensure that essential safeguards are in place so that children are not mistakenly sentenced to death. These safeguards should include legal assistance, universal birth registration and training for judges and prosecutors in juvenile justice.
The petition also calls on the General Assembly to request a report from the UN secretary-general on all states' compliance with the absolute ban on the juvenile death penalty, including information on the number of juvenile offenders currently on death row and the number executed during the last five years. Such a study would be an important tool in identifying good practices that states can use in implementing the absolute prohibition on these executions and to set benchmarks for moving toward full compliance.
"The General Assembly should adopt strong, detailed recommendations on the steps states should take to implement the prohibition on the juvenile death penalty, and then follow up to monitor states' actions," Bencomo said. "It is unconscionable that, in some countries, children are facing execution because they lacked birth certificates or didn't have lawyers during investigation and trial."
The text of the petition and a list of the 305 groups that have signed it are available in Arabic, English, Farsi, French, Japanese, and Spanish.