The United Nations Human Rights Committee has held that Ghana’s mandatory death penalty for murder is a violation of the right to life. The Death Penalty Project filed a complaint with the Committee, on behalf of Dexter Johnson, after the Supreme Court of Ghana had refused, earlier, to quash Mr Johnson’s death sentence.
Up until the Supreme Court’s decision in March 2011, there had been general consensus by the courts that an automatic application of the death penalty – that is one without any opportunity for the court to consider the circumstances of a particular offence or offender – was an arbitrary deprivation of life and thus a violation of fundamental human rights.
In expressing its decision, the Committee accepted submissions made by the Death Penalty Project that, although Ghana had not carried out an execution since 1993, it could resume at any time, which previously has occurred in other countries with similar moratoriums. The Committee also noted that the Ghanaian government had not yet voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution for a worldwide moratorium of executions.
Ghana is now obliged to commute Mr Johnson’s sentence. The government is also obliged to ensure that there are no similar violations in future, by amending any legislation which currently provides for an automatic sentence of death for some offences, to allow for judicial discretion on punishment.
Ghana is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Article 6(1) guarantees a right to life. The government had claimed that the death penalty was expressly preserved by its Constitution and, therefore, was not subject to challenge. However, the Committee noted that the Ghanaian Constitution is silent on whether that penalty should be mandatory. In light of this, it fell to be interpreted in line with Article 6(1).
The Committee’s decision follows similar declarations made in respect of other signatories to the Covenant that have legislated for mandatory capital punishment.
Joseph Middleton of Doughty Street Chambers was instructed pro bono by DPP to assist in this matter.
Read the full judgment.
To date, no actions have been taken by Ghana to enforce the decision of the Human Rights Commission. Dexter Johnson remains under a sentence of death which was automatically imposed, the Criminal Code has not yet been amended and the Ghanaian courts continue to sentence people to the mandatory death penalty.
We have now submitted an application to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights on behalf of Dexter Johnson to attempt to secure remedies in the case.