Commissioners: President Margarette May Macaluay, First Vice-President Esmeralda Arosemena De Troitiño, and Joel Hernandez
Petitioners: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP), The Greater Caribbean for Life (GCL)
Petitioners gathered before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on Thursday, December 6, 2018 to discuss the use of the death penalty in the Americas. Despite significant progress with eradicating the death penalty in the Americas over the years, there are still fifteen nations who hold onto this form of punishment. Some states which retain the death penalty are the United States and several Caribbean nations. Petitioners—the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP) and The Greater Caribbean for Life (GCL)—argued the death penalty is a violation of basic human rights and that there are other methods of punishment available.
On June 27, 2018, the Caribbean Court of Justice held that the mandatory death penalty in Barbados was unconstitutional. This ruling affirms the IACHR’s stance that mandatory death penalties are in violation of Article 4 of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR). Mandatory death penalty laws in the Caribbean make the death penalty mandatory for a person convicted of murder. Multiple Caribbean states have already abolished the mandatory death penalty in their own courts, but some, such as Barbados, have continued to hold onto the mandatory death penalty as a punishment.
Overall, many OAS member states have abolished the death penalty. Only a minority of OAS member states continue using it. The states which have retained the death penalty are not considered in violation of the ACHR, but are subject to specific limitations pursuant to Article 4 of the ACHR.
Petitioners Greater Caribbean for Life (GCL) raised concerns about how the use of the death penalty shows a disregard for human life and a remnant of colonial times. GCL highlighted the movement towards abolition of the death penalty and identified Surinam as the most recent OAS member state to abolish the death penalty. GCL also noted that Barbados’s mandatory death penalty law was recently struck down as unconstitutional. Aside from the overall use of the death penalty, GCL raised concerns about the poor conditions to which death penalty prisoners are subjected. The poor conditions are due to some member states failing to fully accept the Mandela rules. One example of the poor conditions is that some death row prisoners spend twenty-three hours a day in solitary confinement.
Petitioners World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP) focused on two issues: (1) the death penalty in the United States and Puerto Rico, and (2) the lack of signatories on the Protocol To The American Convention On Human Rights To Abolish The Death Penalty (American Protocol). With regards to Puerto Rico, the WCADP highlighted the issues faced by a nation still being classified as a colony in the 21st century. Because of this status, Puerto Rico is forced to have the death penalty in its federal courts without any representation in Congress. WCADP also commended Washington state’s decision to abolish the death penalty due to racist and arbitrary enforcement. Additionally, WCADP argued that the use of the death penalty violates Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by failing to respect one’s right to life. WCADP noted that the American Protocol has been ratified by thirteen countries and that eleven member states have abolished the death penalty without ratifying the protocol. WCADP calls on those member states to ratify the American Protocol because the right to life is fundamental and deserves the utmost protection.
In response to the arguments, Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena De Troitiño asked for clarification on the Washington Supreme Court case. Specifically, she requested statistics on the use and application of the death penalty indicating racial bias. The Commissioner also wanted to know about any studies regarding the impact of arbitrary discretion in its application, demographics on those sentenced to death, why the death penalty is such an issue in the Caribbean, and more information on the Washington Supreme Court’s decision to abolish the death penalty. Commissioner Joel Hernandez noted that there should be a campaign to bring about the ratification of the American Protocol. Maria Claudia Pulido noted that the OAS report on the death penalty should be updated and asked about what focus the report should have. Commissioner Margarette May Macaluay stated that nations keeping the death penalty on their books despite not using the punishment are an embarrassment. Specifically, she cited Jamaica, who has had a moratorium on the death penalty for the past thirty years. The Commissioner further brought up the requested statistics for the United States, which show the highest percentage of persons on death row to be white and Latino persons.
In closing, GCL responded that the death penalty is an issue in the Caribbean because it is a political issue and the majority sentenced to death are poor black men. Petitioners mentioned in their closing remarks that it is said “capital punishment is for people without capital.” WCADP corrected Commissioner Macaluay’s statistics by stating that based on the total United States population there is a disproportionately large number of black people on death row than whites. Petitioner further noted that the Washington Supreme Court decision was based on studies which found that 95% of persons on death row were poor or came from poverty and that this stems partially from the discretionary use of the death penalty. The WCADP concluded that updating the OAS report on the death penalty would be beneficial to their mission and that they hoped to encourage a higher number of ratifications of the American Protocol by the thirty-year anniversary in 2020.