A view of the United Nations General Assembly, at UN headquarters, October 1, 2018.  © AP Photo/Richard Drew

(Bangkok) – Eleven countries from the Asia-Pacific region were among the small minority that voted against a United Nations resolution opposing the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 17, 120 UN member states voted in favor of a resolution in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly reiterating a call for a moratorium on the use of capital punishment. In December, the General Assembly plenary is expected to adopt the resolution, which shows the world’s rejection of this inherently cruel and irrevocable form of punishment.

Only 39 countries voted against the resolution. The 11 from the Asia-Pacific region were: Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, China, India, Japan, the Maldives, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Tonga.

“It’s no surprise the governments that voted against a death penalty moratorium include some of the most serious rights violators in the world,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that 11 Asian and Pacific governments voted against the UN resolution, including many that still carry out executions, shows how far the region needs to go to develop justice systems that respect human rights.”

The countries voting in favor of the moratorium should urgently take necessary steps towards abolition of the death penalty, and should press the 39 countries that voted against the measure to place a moratorium on executions. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.

The UN member states’ call for a moratorium effectively neutralizes an amendment to the resolution that Singapore introduced on behalf of 33 countries – including many in Asia – that asserts the “sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal systems, including determining appropriate legal penalties.”

The resolution went further than previous versions. For the first time, women were acknowledged as a group who are subject to the discriminatory application of the death penalty. Disadvantaged and minority groups were again recognized as disproportionately represented among death row inmates. The resolution raised concerns about the use of the death penalty against children, in particular the need to restrict the death penalty’s use when an individuals’ age cannot be determined.

Previous resolutions called for governments to be transparent about the death penalty by publishing information about the age, race, sex, and nationality of people on death row, including the numbers of people sentenced, awaiting executions, and those whose sentences were commuted on appeal. Asian governments that still use capital punishment have shown little transparency regarding death penalty statistics, Human Rights Watch said.

The seven General Assembly resolutions calling for a moratorium on executions adopted since 2007 demonstrate a growing global consensus against the death penalty. However, many people in Asia are still being put to death. At the end of 2019, at least 26,604 people were languishing on death row around the world. By the end of 2019, Pakistan had one of the world’s largest known death row populations. Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka also have swelling numbers of inmates on death row, while in Singapore there are reportedly 50 people on death row who have exhausted all appeals. In many of these countries, the death penalty is mandatory for a range of offenses, including non-violent drug offenses, despite calls from the UN special rapporteurs on summary executions and on torture that “executions for drug crimes amount to a violation of international law and are unlawful killings.”

It is largely accepted that China is the world’s largest executioner followed by Iran. Dui Hua, a nongovernmental organization that tracks China’s death penalty statistics, estimates that 84,000 executions occurred in China between 2002 to 2018, though the numbers appear to be declining significantly since a 2007 decision allowing the Supreme People’s Court to review all death sentences. The exact numbers of death sentences carried out in China are unknown and remain a state secret. It has not been possible to get accurate figures from North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos. Human Rights Watch has documented public executions in North Korea, especially in political prison camps (kwanliso). Despite executions being considered a state secret in Vietnam, the Ministry of Public Security reported in early 2017 that authorities executed 429 persons between 2013 and 2016.

Malaysia, which voted in favor of the moratorium, holds approximately 1,324 people on death row. In October 2018, the Malaysian government imposed a moratorium on executions and announced its intention to abolish the death penalty. In March 2019, however, it backtracked, announcing that it would maintain the death penalty but would merely end the mandatory application of the punishment. While the moratorium on executions appears to remain in place, the Malaysian government has yet to take steps to end the use of the mandatory death penalty.

Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam were among the 24 countries that abstained from voting. Indonesia, which has not executed anyone since 2016, has approximately 274 people awaiting execution, including 60 people who have been on death row for 10 years. At least 80 death sentences were handed down in 2019, a significant increase from the 48 handed down in 2018.

More than 15 Asia-Pacific countries voted in favor of the resolution. These included Sri Lanka and the Philippines, despite their moving in the opposite direction. Last year, the Sri Lankan government threatened to end its 43-year de facto moratorium, which the courts rejected. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly threatened to reinstate the death penalty.

In its December 2007 resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty, the UN General Assembly stated that “there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value and that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable.”

“The shocking number of people sitting on death row in Asia make the region an aberration in the global move towards abolition of the death penalty,” Robertson said. “UN member states that supported the moratorium should band together to put concerted pressure on countries to get rid of the death penalty and commute all death sentences.”