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Legal & int’l complications over the death penalty

IN 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a “moratorium on the use of the death penalty” in member countries around the world. The resolution proposed a moratorium on executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty in the future. It was passed by a vote of 104 in favor – the Philippines among them, with 54 against, and 29 abstentions. A subsequent resolution in 2008 was adopted with increased support from 106 states, with 46 against, and 34 abstaining.

In 2010, the General Assembly approved a new resolution drafted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, by a broader margin of support – 109 votes for, 41 against, and 35 abstentions. The resolution renewed its call on “states that still maintain the death penalty to progressively restrict its use, reduce the number of offenses for which it may be imposed, and to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. States which have abolished the death penalty are called upon not to reintroduce it.”

The Philippines became the first country in Asia to abolish the death penalty when it incorporated in the Constitution of 1987, in the Bill of Rights, Article III, Section 19(1): “The death penalty shall not be imposed unless, for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes, the Congress thereafter provides for it. Any death penalty already imposed shall be reduced to reclusion perpetua.” In 1993, however, following a series of crimes described as heinous, RA 7659 reimposed the death penalty for 46 crimes, to be carried out by lethal injection, no longer by electric chair as before.

After seven executions in 1999, President Joseph Estrada issued a moratorium on executions in observance of the “Jubilee Year” of the Roman Catholic Church. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo lifted the moratorium following a rise in drug trafficking and kidnappings, “to sow fear in the hearts of criminals.” But no further executions were actually held, as the administration issued reprieves.

Today, the incoming Duterte administration has announced that it will renew executions as part of its campaign against crime, preferably by hanging. Secretary of Justice Emmanuel Caparas, however, has pointed out that the Philippines approved the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at abolition of the death penalty in 2007. In the absence of a withdrawal mechanism in the protocol, he said, once a state ratifies it, the death penalty cannot be reintroduced without violating international law.

The outgoing Aquino administration has urged the incoming Duterte administration to conduct a thorough study of the issue in view of these complications involving international law and international relations. There could be sanctions, such as withholding of international cooperation and aid. A referendum on the issue has also been suggested – this would help to determine the people’s – not just the officials’ – views on this most critical issue.

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