DEATH PENALTY: Children's rights in latest UN report

Summary: Discussion of children's rights in the UN Secretary-General's report on the death penalty, due to be presented at the Human Rights Council's 24th session.

Use of the death penalty has been condemned by the international community for decades, and 150 Member States of the United Nations have now abolished the death penalty or introduced a moratorium, whether in law or practice. However, the practice persists. Between June 2012 and May 2013, 21 States carried out executions and three executed people for crimes committed while under 18.

Ahead of the 24th session of the Human Rights Council, the report of the Secretary-General on the death penalty has been released. In this commentary, we pull out extracts of some of the key issues raised in the report regarding the use of the death penalty, particularly against children, and highlight some of the concerns for children’s rights that didn’t make it into the report.

As a children’s rights organisation, CRIN emphasises the abolition of the juvenile death penalty, but we believe the death penalty should be abolished for all individuals, regardless of age.

Juvenile executions

Capital punishment for crimes committed by persons under the age of 18 is clearly prohibited in international law. Both Article 37(a) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 6(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights contain explicit prohibitions on such punishment. As the report noted, however, between June 2012 and May 2013, 15 States retained laws which allowed children to be sentenced to death, and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are known to have executed juvenile offenders.

International standards

Last year the General Assembly in a resolution called upon States to progressively restrict use of the death penalty and not impose it for offences committed by persons under the age of 18. In addition, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Violence against Children, Ms Marta Santos Pais, placed special emphasis in her report on the importance of national legislation banning capital punishment. Furthermore, the abolition of the death penalty has been identified as a critical area of concern to the UN’s Human Rights Council in the Joint report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the SRSG on Violence against Children on prevention of and responses to violence against children within the juvenile justice system.

Children’s rights in the Secretary-General’s report

Children’s rights in the OHCHR report for the HRC’s 24th Session

Age determination

The problems of inadequate birth registration and age determination practices are a well established factor in States that continue to execute people for crimes committed as children. The S-G’s report highlighted this problem in the context of Yemen where, although the law prohibits the death penalty for children, such punishment continues because of the lack of means to determine the age of people before the court. The SRSG on Violence against Children recommended that where it is not possible to conclusively determine the age of the child at the time of an offence, she or he should be presumed to be below 18 and not handed the death penalty.

Human Rights Watch’s report, “Look at us with a Merciful Eyes”, discusses the cases of juvenile offenders awaiting execution in Yemen, and recommends that the President of Yemen “order a review of all death sentences where there is doubt that the individual was at least 18 at the time of [the] offence” and commute all sentences when evidence regarding an offender’s age remains inconclusive”.

Children of parents sentenced to death or executed

In a resolution adopted in March 2013, the Human Rights Council acknowledges the negative impact of a parent’s death sentence and execution on his or her children, and urges States to provide those children with the protection and assistance they may require. It also calls upon States to provide those children, or, where appropriate giving due consideration to the best interests of the child, with access to their parents and to all relevant information about the situation of their parents.

The Quaker United Nations Office reported that, according to academic and policy studies, children can suffer change or deterioration in their living situation and conditions, relationship with others and physical and mental well-being following parental incarceration. There is a growing body of evidence that documents the specific and serious mental health implications of capital punishment, in particular for children of persons sentenced to death. Those children suffer a uniquely traumatic, profoundly complicated and socially isolating loss often combined with social ostracism.

At the upcoming session, a panel will be held on the human rights of children of parents sentenced to the death penalty or executed. For more details, visit our session page to find out how you can participate or follow the discussions.

Our concerns ahead of the resolution

Great progress has been made in outlawing the death penalty for children, a practice now very rare internationally, but in our submission to this report we called for the Secretary-General to look at the death penalty within the broader context of children’s rights. We believe it’s important to view the death penalty within the wider context of sentencing of children as per the S-G’s Study on Violence against Children, in which the S-G recommended that death penalties be suspended and that States should take “appropriate legal measures to convert them into penalties that are in conformity with international human rights standards.”

While we would welcome the abolition of, or moratoria on, the death penalty, we are concerned that this leads to an increase in sentences of life imprisonment. Life imprisonment for children is also a form of cruel and inhuman punishment that we, and our partners, have been campaigning against. The UN has started to address this issue, and in November 2012 passed a resolution encouraging States “to consider repealing all other forms of life imprisonment for offences committed by persons under 18”. It’s our hope that the international human rights community continues to look at what takes the place of the death penalty when it is abolished.

Further Information:



    Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.