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United Nations

UN Rapporteur Cites Iran As a Particularly Egregious Example For Executing Foreign Nationals

UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns
United Nations
August 7, 2015





States should do more to protect their citizens facing the death penalty abroad
- UN expert

NEW YORK (29 October 2015) – Hundreds of foreign nationals face the death penalty around the world after trials that may not meet the highest - or in some cases even the lowest - standards of fairness, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns has highlighted in a recent report.*

“Though nobody is suggesting that foreign nationals should be exempted from the law, they are often in a particularly vulnerable position and have little or no defence against the law enforcement systems of the countries where they find themselves. This is particularly the case with migrant workers,” said Heyns.

“States of origin often consider that, since these people have left their country, they must fend for themselves and therefore do not protect them from punishment that might be arbitrary,” he added.

The Special Rapporteur noted in his report to the UN General Assembly that in several States there are significant numbers of foreign nationals on death row.  For example, in Iran, at least 1,200 Afghan citizens are facing the death penalty for drug crimes. In Saudi Arabia, at least 33 foreign nationals were executed in just the first half of 2015. Some 125 Filipino migrant workers are also on death row abroad. “Some cases, where Westerners face the death penalty abroad, may be covered in the media,” said Mr. Heyns, “but that is only the tip of the iceberg.”

The foreign nationals who end up facing the death penalty abroad are often among the most vulnerable, and can find themselves exploited or scapegoated in some legal systems. Proceedings in which, for example, the defendant has not been provided with an interpreter or with legal representation as required, cannot be considered as fair, said the Special Rapporteur.

“People arrested abroad must be promptly informed by authorities of their right to seek consular assistance under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations,” stressed Mr. Heyns. “This is true of all cases, but particularly important in countries where the death penalty is still in use.”

In his report, the Special Rapporteur described the programmes put in place by some governments frequently providing assistance to their nationals facing death sentences. The Mexican Government, for example, established the “Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program” to address the problems faced by Mexican nationals in the United States of America.

The success of such programmes contrasts with States that do not have such systems or fail to provide consular assistance when notified and indicates that they may be failing in their responsibility to protect their citizens from potentially arbitrary deprivations of life, Mr. Heyns said. 
“States which have abolished the death penalty should ensure that they are not complicit in executions elsewhere,” he said. “It could be argued that they have a positive responsibility to act and protect their own citizens from death penalty overseas - even if such steps are not always successful.”

Mr. Heyns also emphasized that all States, whether they have abolished the death penalty or not, are required to protect individuals from arbitrary executions, especially  when the death penalty is imposed after an unfair trial or for crimes that do not meet the threshold of ‘most serious’, such as drugs trafficking.

The need for all States to avoid complicity in internationally unlawful acts - such as the imposition of the death penalty for drugs offences - also implies that States must exercise extreme caution in providing assistance to justice mechanisms in countries where such sentencing is still in use.

“A small minority of States make no secret of the fact that they are flagrantly ignoring international standards with respect to ‘most serious crimes’,” said Mr Heyns. “Other States must be careful when offering financial support or technical assistance to those legal systems, whether bilaterally or through international agencies. Any such assistance must be offered only after obtaining guarantees that no death sentence will be imposed.”

“The real and lasting solution is the progressive abolition of the death penalty,” Mr. Heyns said. “No state should practise this archaic form of punishment today – and all States have an interest in ensuring that it is abolished worldwide, not only because their citizens may face execution overseas, but also because the use of the death penalty is an affront to the right to a dignified life of everyone everywhere.”