Countries around the world are increasingly viewing capital punishment as a form of torture because it inflicts severe mental and physical pain on those sentenced to death, a UN torture investigator said.
Traditionally, countries have considered the legality of capital punishment with respect to the right to life guaranteed under international law, UN special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez told the UN General Assembly's human rights committee.
"My analysis of regional and national jurisprudence identifies a momentum towards redefining the legality of capital punishment," Mendez said.
"States need to re-examine their procedures under international law because the ability of states to impose and carry out the death penalty is diminishing as these practises are increasingly viewed to constitute torture," he said. He said that there was no such thing as a pain-free form of execution, which makes it difficult to reject the idea that it is a form of torture.
"Methods of execution cannot be discounted as being completely painless," he told reporters after addressing the General Assembly's Third Committee.
Review called on execution methods
In his report to the 193-nation General Assembly, Mendez said that several UN expert panels have urged the United States to review its execution methods, including lethal injection, to prevent extreme pain and suffering.
"Following a number of executions in the United States, it has recently become apparent that the (lethal injection) regimen, as currently administered, does not work as efficiently as intended," Mendez's report said.
"Some prisoners take many minutes to die and others become very distressed," he said. "New studies conclude that even if lethal injection is administered without technical error, those executed may experience suffocation, and therefore the conventional view of lethal injection as a peaceful and painless death is questionable."
Capital punishment is a controversial and divisive issue in the United States. Most US states, as well as the federal government and US military, allow executions, though some states have raised concerns similar to Mendez's.
Last month a Montana judge struck down that state's lethal injection procedure as a violation of the Montana constitution because it lacked necessary safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment, effectively suspending executions.
Some death penalties too extreme
He criticised Iran in his report to the General Assembly for executing minors. He also condemned Tehran for hanging 10 people for drug smuggling, describing as unacceptable "the death penalty for crimes that are not even among the worst offences.
In his report he said, "The evolving practise of States shows a clear trend towards abolition of the death penalty." However, he did not name the countries that have done so.
He urged all countries to consider abolishing capital punishment because it is "cumbersome and expensive and you're never sure you're doing it in the right way." He added that its deterrent value was questionable.
His report did not mention China, which executes more people than any other country and has been criticised by human rights groups for its execution methods. Mendez said that his report was meant to be general, though it does contain several specific examples, including the United States and Iran.
Suffering an anxiety on death row
Mendez spoke about what he called the "death row phenomenon," circumstances that cause severe mental anguish and physical suffering among prisoners serving death sentences.
Such suffering, he said, includes uncertainty and anxiety caused by the imminent threat of execution, extended solitary confinement, poor prison conditions and a lack of recreational or educational possibilities.
A diplomat from Singapore, one of the countries that allows the death penalty, rejected as "deeply flawed" Mendez's suggestion that considering capital punishment a form of torture was emerging as a new widely accepted international legal norm.
"There is no evidence that the decisions Mr. Mendez has referred to have been accepted by all states as having the status of binding rules of international law," Mark Neo, a senior diplomat at Singapore's UN mission, said in the written text of his statement.
"Singapore certainly has not accepted them as such," he said.
Egypt also rejected Mendez's views. The US mission declined to provide its statement, though Mendez said the US delegation also rejected the idea that there was an emerging legal view that executions should be considered torture.
(Reuters Health, October 2012)
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