Execution of the death penalty on minors

Published: 20 December 2017 Author: Stefan Talmon

Germany rejects the death penalty under all circumstances and actively campaigns for its worldwide abolition. As part of its campaign for the abolition of the death penalty, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the Federal Foreign Office issued several statements on the execution of the death penalty on minors. On 9 August 2017, the Commissioner for Human Rights Policy took up the case of the 20-year old Iranian Alireza Tajiki who had been convicted of murder and rape and faced imminent execution. She stated:

“The news that the execution of young Iranian Alireza Tajiki could be imminent fills me with great concern.

He was only 15 years old at the time of the crimes of which he stands accused, and there are considerable doubts as to whether his trial was conducted in accordance with the principles of the rule of law.

Should Alireza Tajiki be executed, this would be an unacceptable violation of international law. Iran has ratified not only the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which prohibit the execution of individuals who were minors at the time of an offence.

I urgently appeal to the Iranian judicial authorities to refrain from carrying out this planned execution. Alireza Tajiki must be given a fair trial under the rule of law B and without the imposition of the death penalty.

The German Government opposes the death penalty, whatever the circumstances.”

Despite worldwide opposition Alireza Tajiki was executed on 10 August 2017. The following day, the Commissioner for Human Rights Policy issued a second statement saying:

“I am deeply shocked that Alireza Tajiki was put to death by Iran despite the international protests. He was only 15 years old at the time of the crime he is accused of having committed. His execution violates international law and is completely unacceptable!

The German Government opposes the death penalty, whatever the circumstances. I urgently appeal to all those responsible in Iran to immediately suspend all death penalties and completely stop handing down such sentences to minors.”

Throughout the year, impending executions in Iran of persons convicted of crimes committed below eighteen years of age gave rise to three other statements along the same lines. This is hardly surprising considering that Iran was applying the death penalty at a very high rate. The October 2017 Report of the United Nations Secretary-General on human rights in Iran noted that “at least 247 persons, including three women and three juvenile offenders, are known to have been executed between January and June 2017.” At least 89 persons sentenced as children were on death row in Iran in July 2017.

The only other country that was criticized in 2017 for the execution of minors was Japan. On 19 December 2017, the Commissioner for Human Rights Policy issued the following statement:

“I was shocked to hear that the death penalty has again been carried out in Japan. On 19 December 2017, two people were executed in Japan, one of whom was still a minor under Japanese law at the time of the crime. This brings the number of people executed in the country since December 2012 to 21. The death penalty is an inhumane and cruel form of punishment. The German Government rejects the death penalty under all circumstances and will continue to work with its partners in the European Union to actively campaign for its worldwide abolition. The execution of individuals who were minors at the time of the crime is a breach of international human rights standards. Germany and Japan are close partners and work together in a spirit of trust on many issues. I would therefore like to ask the Japanese Government to reconsider its current practice and to suspend further use of the death penalty. There is an open discussion in Japanese civil society on the abolition of the death penalty. I welcome this discussion, which forms a crucial basis for dialogue.”

There is an important difference between these statements, both in wording and in substance. In case of Iran the persons sentenced to death had committed the crimes at a time when they were not yet eighteen years of age. Thus, the imposition and execution of the death penalty on these persons clearly violated Article 6, paragraph 5, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 37(a) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which both prohibit the imposition of capital punishment for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age. These conventions have been binding upon Iran since 24 June 1975 and 13 July 1994, respectively.

In the case of Japan one of the persons executed was 19 at the time of the crime and was a “child” or “juvenile” only under Japanese law, not under international law. Japan thus did not violate any international treaty obligation when it executed the person. There is also no rule of customary international law prohibiting the execution of 19-year-old offenders. This may explain why in the case of Iran the Commissioner expressly referred to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, while in the case of Japan reference is only made to ominous “international human rights standards”. Such practices do not only undermine the authority of international human rights law but also call into question the credibility of the statements by the Commissioner for Human Rights Policy more generally.

Category: Human rights

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Author

  • Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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