In October 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee adopted General Comment No. 36 on article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the right to life. The General Comment emphasises the goal of abolishing the death penalty and, where states retain capital punishment, to restrict its use. The Human Rights Committee paid tribute to the work of the late Sir Nigel Rodley, a Patron of The Rights Practice. He was an influential voice in early calls for an authoritative interpretation of the right to life and the use of the death penalty.

In October 2019, The Rights Practice held an introductory training for Chinese criminal defence lawyers on the use of the death penalty. Topics included international and Chinese efforts to restrict the use of the death penalty and the understanding of ‘Most Serious Crimes’ in international law, including General Comment 36. Participants examined the 46 crimes, including non-violent drug offences, which are eligible for the death sentence in China and agreed that the majority of these offences did not meet the threshold of extreme gravity involving intentional killing.

The training was centred on the meaning and implementation of the UN Minimum Safeguards for those facing the death penalty. Lawyers discussed some of the challenges they face in providing clients, charged with a capital crime, with an effective defence. Problems included the participation of different lawyers at each stage of a case and inadequate disclosure by the procuratorate. Lawyers also recognised that many legal aid lawyers taking death penalty cases were inexperienced and under-funded. The majority of death penalty cases have legal aid funded representation and poor quality is understood to be a problem. It is hoped that the drafters of China’s Legal Aid Law will find ways to ensure an effective defence is available to anyone facing the death penalty.  

Throughout the workshop key messages included the importance of implementing the UN safeguards, the difference the lawyer can make between life and death, and the need for lawyers to be patient and persistent. In written feedback, participants expressed an increased sense of empowerment. Despite obstacles lawyers were keen to apply the new principles and skills in their own work.