IBAHRI calls on the Biden administration to abolish the death penalty in the US

Monday 18 January 2021

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) calls on the United States President-elect Joe Biden to commute all federal death sentences and to uphold his campaign commitment to abolish the death penalty in the US, once he assumes the office of President.

The IBAHRI strongly condemns the recent federal executions in the US, including that of Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs, on 13, 14 and 16 January respectively, at the Federal Correction Complex, Terre Haute in Indiana.

IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996–2006), the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG said: ‘The IBAHRI is deeply concerned by reports of, inter alia, prosecutorial misconduct and a lack of adequate legal representation in capital punishment cases. We call on the United States to halt all executions and to strictly respect the right to a fair trial in all its dimensions to avoid miscarriages of justice. In this regard, we call on the in-coming Biden administration to uphold the campaign commitment to “work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level and incentivise states to follow the federal government’s example.”’

Mr Kirby added: The IBAHRI opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. Our Council Resolution on the Abolition of the Death Penalty calls on all jurisdictions throughout the world to take steps towards eradicating capital punishment. It is a leftover from earlier cruel and un-correctable punishments. There have been too many cases of wrongful and unjust executions that cannot be reversed. They are often imposed arbitrarily and, as in recent federal instances in the United States, on grounds that appear to be motivated by political rather than legal considerations. They tend to fall disproportionately on members of disadvantaged groups. Abolition is clearly the direction in which international law and civilised states are moving. Other serious punishments exist that allow for the possibility of human redemption, correction and forgiveness where this is appropriate. No means exist to carry out capital punishments humanely. And the scramble to effect hurried executions before the departure of a defeated administration in the United States has been specially gruesome.’

In July 2019, the then US Attorney General,William Barr, announced that the federal government would reinstate capital punishment. In July 2020, President Donald Trump ordered the first federal executions since 2003 and broke a 17-year informal moratorium. There have since been 13 federal executions. This number is greater than the combined figure of those to have taken place in the previous 56 years, with the first federal execution of a woman, Ms Montgomery, in almost seventy years. It is also the case that President Trump broke with a 130-year precedent of pausing federal executions during a presidential transition of power.

IBAHRI Co-Chair, and immediate past Secretary-General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr jur hc, commented: ‘The IBAHRI reiterates that the use of the death penalty is a cruel, irreversible and too often arbitrary and discriminatory practice, and points to Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his [or her] life”. We urge President-elect Joe Biden to commute all capital punishment sentences and to revisit the Government’s policy on the death penalty with a view to its total abolition with haste.’


Notes to the Editor

  1. Related material
  2. At the state level, 22 states have abolished capital punishment to date and three - California, Oregon and Pennsylvania – have Governor-imposed moratoriums. Public support for the death penalty in the US is at its lowest level in half a century.
  3. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), established in 1995 under Founding Honorary President Nelson Mandela, is an autonomous and financially independent entity, working to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.
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  5. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.
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