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NZ behind UN resolution to abolish death penalty

10 October 2007

NZ behind UN resolution to abolish death penalty

Prime Minister Helen Clark today announced that New Zealand is working with other countries to put a resolution to the United Nations seeking the abolition of the death penalty world wide.

Helen Clark made the announcement at an event at Parliament, attended by Amnesty International representatives, to highlight World Day Against the Death Penalty.

“New Zealand’s last execution occurred fifty years ago, in 1957. Capital punishment was removed from our statute books in 1961, except for the crime of treason. That provision was finally repealed in 1989,” Helen Clark said.

“To date ninety countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, and 131 countries have done so in law or in practice. Sixty-six countries still retain the death penalty.

“Capital punishment is the ultimate form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The death penalty violates the right to life and is by definition and in practice a cruel and degrading treatment. It is known to have been inflicted on the innocent. Its very nature means it cannot be reversed.

“New Zealand has campaigned against the death penalty for many years. We are now working with other nations on a resolution to go before the UN General Assembly later this year.

“The resolution will ask countries to implement a global moratorium on executions as a first step towards the eventual abolition of the death penalty. Its adoption would be a significant step forward in the abolition campaign,” Helen Clark said.


The death penalty was inherited from English law and, while its application narrowed, it remained an option in New Zealand until 1989. All legal executions in New Zealand have been by hanging, with the first in 1842 and the last in 1957.


From 1935 to 1941 the Labour Government followed a policy of commuting all death sentences imposed by the courts to life imprisonment.

From 1941 to 1950 the death penalty was outlawed.

In 1950 it was restored by the National Government, and from 1951 to 1957 there were 18 convictions for murder and eight executions.

In 1956, a proposal for a referendum on capital punishment was put forward by the then Minister of Justice, Jack Marshall. This referendum was to be voted on during the 1957 general election, but the proposal was defeated.

The 1957 election saw a Labour government elected, which made the death penalty inoperative through the automatic exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy.
In 1961, the newly elected National Government reaffirmed its support for the death penalty, but restricted its use to premeditated murders, murders committed during another crime, and murders committed during an escape from custody.

The issue of capital punishment generated debate within the National Party—the new Minister of Justice, Ralph Hanan, was an opponent of the death penalty, while Jack Marshall, then Deputy Prime Minister, was a strong supporter.
When the issue came to a conscience vote in Parliament, Hanan and nine other National MPs crossed the floor to vote with the Labour Party.
The death penalty was thereby abolished for murder, being retained only for treason and a number of military offences.

These last remnants of the death penalty (which had never been put into practice) were finally abolished under a Labour government in 1989, with the enactment of the Abolition of the Death Penalty Act.

New Zealand signed and ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights( ICCPR), which aims to abolish the death penalty, in February 1990, following the passage of the

Abolition of the Death Penalty Act.

New Zealand was the first country to ratify the Optional Protocol, reinforcing New Zealand’s ongoing commitment to the abolition of the death penalty.


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