In an Addendum dated 2nd July 2015 subsequent to Guyana’s Universal Periodic Review, Guyana informed the United Nations that in relation to the death penalty, “A de facto moratorium has been in place since 1997…” A statement to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly should not be lightly made. It is fair to assume that our Ministry of Foreign Affairs understood the significance of giving this assurance to the United Nations.
In December 2016, the UN General Assembly voted on a moratorium on executions. Guyana was one of 40 (out of 195) states who voted against the resolution. Why did we vote against the moratorium when we have one in place? On what grounds did our government conclude that it was the wisest possible course for Guyana’s vote to contradict our previous assurance to the Human Rights Council that a moratorium is in place?
An examination of the UN resolution provides no clue to the rationale for the Guyana vote. The key provision was for states, “to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.” Guyana is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 6 protects the right to life. It does not make the death penalty illegal, but it imposes a treaty obligation on states to proceed to complete abolition of the death penalty. On what grounds did our government conclude that the best course was to vote inconsistently with our international treaty obligation?
Guyana has incorporated the ICCPR into the Constitution. To what extent, if at all, did our government consider the Constitution?
The UN resolution called upon states to respect international standards set by the Economic and Social Council. Some of these international standards are already in Guyana’s laws – we do not allow death sentences for pregnant women, minors or insane persons. Does our government object to the other international standards? Does our government disagree with the principle that the death penalty should be restricted to ‘intentional crimes with lethal or other grave consequences’ or to cases in which there is no doubt about the guilt of the offender, or that there must be a fair trial and a proper appeals process to a final court, or that if an execution is carried out it must be done with the minimum possible suffering? Guyana already allows offenders under sentence of death to apply for a pardon or a commutation of their sentence. Does our government object to the principle that such procedures should be fair and transparent?
The UN resolution called on states to provide information on death row prisoners and on compliance with international standards. Guyana provides such information in the Universal Periodic Review. In 2016 the administration gave the Justice Institute Guyana information on death row prisoners. Does this vote imply that information which was previously available will now be secret?
The UN resolution called on states to comply with Article 36 of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations regarding communication and contact for foreigners in prison. Does our government suddenly have concerns about complying with this longstanding treaty obligation?
Since President Granger has said he will not authorise any executions we already meet the UN’s call to ‘progressively restrict’ the use of the death penalty. Does this ‘no’ vote imply a change?
The UN resolution called for states to reduce the number of offences for which the death penalty may be imposed. Guyana extended the death penalty to new offences in the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism Act (2009) and in the Anti-Terrorism and Terrorist Related Activities Act (2015). Arguably these laws conflict with the Constitution. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) does not require the death penalty. Is our government refusing to replace the death penalty with ‘effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions whether criminal, civil or administrative’ as required by FATF?
The UN resolution called for states to ‘consider acceding to or ratifying’ the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR which aims at the abolition of the death penalty. Is our government refusing point blank to ‘consider’ this?
During the vote Guyana appears to have aligned itself with the English-speaking Caribbean. Is our government aware that Antigua, St Lucia, Belize and Jamaica have no death row prisoners, having been forced by judicial decisions to replace death sentences with prison terms and even to free death row prisoners? On what grounds did our government consider that it was wiser to join a retentionist bloc of small islands hundreds of miles across the sea rather than adopt the progressive position of our immediate neighbours (Suriname, Brazil and Venezuela) and the rest of the vast continent of South America where civilians are free of the death penalty? Why did Guyana, a constitutional democracy which has not executed anybody for nearly 20 years, vote ‘no’ with the repressive regimes comprising the top ten executioners on the planet – China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, USA, Iraq, Somalia, Egypt, Indonesia and Chad? Why did Guyana not take an enlightened position like the United Kingdom and the other twenty-seven (for now) states of the European Union and vote ‘yes’? If post-apartheid South Africa and post-genocide Rwanda can get rid of the death penalty, why couldn’t we take a tiny first step and admit publicly in a UN resolution that we do not carry out executions?
Prior to the vote the Minister of Foreign Affairs received a plethora of correspondence asking for Guyana to vote in favour of this UN moratorium. Members of the diaspora wrote to our Permanent Representative to the UN requesting that Guyana vote in favour of the resolution. Letters went to the President and other Ministers, and civil society and lawyers wrote a joint letter to the press, all asking for Guyana to vote in favour of the moratorium. In October 2016, the Justice Institute Guyana and the Death Penalty Project (England) submitted to the President a detailed Memorandum arguing for replacement of the death penalty and requesting that Guyana vote in favour of the moratorium. Copies went to the Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Attorney-General and Minister of Security. The memorandum was supported by leading international jurists. The prestigious Solicitors International Human Rights Group wrote to the Foreign Minister asking that Guyana exercise its sovereignty to vote in favour of the UN resolution. What compelling reason did our government have for ignoring the expressed wishes of citizens and the views of highly respected international and national legal experts?
Death penalty advocates have consistently failed to make a case for capital punishment. They have failed to provide any convincing evidence that executing people is a more effective deterrent than life imprisonment. No rational person believes the death penalty will stop terrorists, the very people who see judicial execution as certain martyrdom. Death penalty advocates cannot explain away the lethal absurdity of the state killing its citizens to prove that killing citizens is wrong. Neither death penalty advocates nor the judges who impose death sentences, can guarantee that Guyana’s criminal justice system will not execute an innocent person. Why then does the Government of Guyana cling so stubbornly to this grim relic of the colonial (in)justice system?
There is growing consensus that the state must respect the right to life. Ask people, ‘Should the state kill its own citizens?’ and they say ‘No.’ Ask how to reduce the murder rate and they usually say the police must do their job, the courts must convict and punish criminals even if they are rich and powerful, and the state must deal with the social conditions that cause crime. The death penalty is not the answer. We will undoubtedly replace it.
But for now we are left with the vexed question: ‘Why did this government make Guyana vote against the moratorium?’
Justice Institute Guyana