Would murder and terrorism constitute ‘most serious crimes’?

By the year 2020, a total of 108 countries have abolished the death penalty. The countries that have abolished the death penalty believe it is a cruel, inhumane and degrading form of punishment. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) recognizes the right to life. Article 6 subsection (1) of the ICCPR provides that every human being has the right to life and no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of this right. Article 6(2) of the Convention provides that the death penalty may be imposed only for the “most serious crimes”. The term most serious crime has not been defined under the convention. This accommodates as an exception to the right provided under Article 6(1) of ICCPR. The lack of the definition of the term has led to an academic debate as to what would constitute a most serious crime. This article will explore crimes that could be established as the most serious crimes with reference to relevant examples.

Even though the ICCPR have never explicitly discussed the crimes that will fall under ‘most serious crimes’ it has been interpreted as intentional crimes with extremely grave or lethal consequences. Intentional crimes are described as premeditation or deliberate intention to kill while extremely grave consequences are portrayed as crimes that endanger life. 

In an event held in 2013 the United Nation’s Deputy High Commissioner of Human Rights, Ms Kyung-Wha Kangstated that it has been interpreted that the term most serious crimes include only the crime of murder or intentional killing. With the ratification of the Human Rights Act 1998 in the United Kingdom, the death penalty has been abolished in the country as it contradicts Article 2 (Right to life) of this Act. The last execution took place in Britain in 1964 for the crime of Murder. After this, the parliament of the UK issued a law suspending the death penalty for all crimes except for high treason, ‘piracy with violence, arson in the royal dockyards and espionage. In the UK, from 1861 until the last execution took place, murder was the only crime that offenders were executed for. These facts suggest that committing murder comes with grave consequences since it involves the taking of someone’s life without a reasonable reason. However, in recent years, some British citizens believe that the death penalty should be an option for convicted terrorists, mass murderers, serial rapists, paedophiles and child killers. In a survey held from August 2019 to May 2022, around 52% of the people said that they would support the idea of bringing back capital punishment for terrorist murder Acts in the United Kingdom.

Another reason why murder may constitute a serious crime is that an innocent person may be executed for a crime that they did not commit. Two of Britain’s most controversial cases, Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley provide enough evidence for it. The Right to life under Article 6 of ICCPR extends to everyone. Taking someone’s life will be a violation of their right to life.

The United States’ most notorious killer, Theodore Robert Bundy was executed for sexually assaulting and killing several young women. While he has confessed to 28 murders, some insist the total number of murders he had committed is unknown. The judge, in this case, has described Ted Bundy’s killings as ‘extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile. This description given by the judge conveys the seriousness of the offences he has committed against his victims.

The punishment for murder differs with the degree of murder. Murder with aggravating circumstances may result in first-degree murder. Examples include the murder of children and pregnant women, using methods which are dangerous to the public such as arson, shooting in a crowd, premeditation etc. With the use of these aggravated circumstances, murder can be conducted in a brutal manner. In countries that still retain capital punishment, first-degree murder is eligible to be punishable by death. In cases of second-degree murder, the defendant may be sentenced to the maximum number of years of life imprisonment. In The safeguards guaranteeing protection which were approved by the Economic and Social council in 1984, most serious crimes were interpreted as intentional crimes with lethal or extremely grave consequences. Intentional crimes were portrayed as premeditation or deliberate intention to kill. Premeditation is the act of planting something beforehand. In murder cases where premeditation is used it would amount to the use of aggravated circumstances. Where killing is deliberate and premeditated, the killing would be first-degree murder. Since every human being has the right to life under the ICCPR. Article 6 subsection 1 of the ICCPR provides that, every human has the right to life and no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of this right. killing someone innocent with the intention to kill will deprive them of their right to life. Even though both the victim and the defendant have the right to life, the defendant does not have the right to deprive the victim of their right to life. Hence, with reference to how the Safeguard Guaranteeing protection has described intentional killing, it can be concluded that murder that is conducted in aggravated circumstances or first-degree murder, can constitute a ‘most serious crime and can be punishable by death.

In an Indian case named, Bacchan v State of Punjab [1980], the courts ruled out that the death penalty must only be imposed for the ‘rarest of the rare’ crimes. The term ‘rarest of the rare’ crimes was described in a much later case, Prajeet Kumar Singh v State of Bihar. With reference to what the judges held in this case, it can be interpreted that the death penalty can be imposed for crimes involving murder committed in an extremely grave manner. However, in India, there are other crimes that the law suggests the death penalty as a form of punishment. This includes waging war against the state, murder and kidnapping with the ransom. Despite this, the Law Commission of India in their 262nd report recommended abolishing the death penalty except in the cases where the accused is convicted of involvement in terror-related cases. If capital punishment is abolished in India, it is most likely that the punishment for crimes such as murder would be replaced with life imprisonment.

The terrorist attack on September 11th of 2001, where nearly 3000 people were killed is one of the biggest terror attacks in the world. The 9/11 incident has allowed countries globally to have a better response to terrorism. Terrorist attacks are serious threats to international peace and security. Another instance is the mosque shooting in Christchurch in 2019 where 51 unarmed people were killed. When innocent people are attacked and killed, their Right to life is being violated. 

In countries such as Indonesia, capital punishment is imposed for narcotic crimes on the basis that they threaten national security. The mass execution of 81 people in Saudi Arabia took place in March of 2022. The crimes committed by those executed includes, the murder of innocent men, women and children, and allegiance to foreign terrorist organizations. In China, which is the country with the highest execution rate in the past few years, the death penalty for terrorism can be imposed under the authority of the country’s penal code and anti-terrorism law. In 2014, 21 people were executed in China for terror-related cases. Humans are entitled to the Right to life under ICCPR. Countries that have not yet abolished the death penalty, may impose it in relation to the law in force at the time of the commission of the offence. Both Murder and Terrorism are unfair acts against innocent lives, these crimes may amount to as ‘most serious crimes’ mentioned in ICCPR.

Fithura Mohamed Shareef

Student- University of the West of England, Bristol

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