I/A Court H.R., Case of Boyce et al. v. Barbados. Preliminary Objection, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of November 20, 2007. Series C No. 169.

Non official brief


This summary is also published in the website of the Council of Europe in the following link: https://www.venice.coe.int/files/Bulletin/B2008-1-e.pdf




Capital punishment is not per se incompatible with or prohibited by the American Convention, however, the Convention sets out strict limitations to the imposition of capital punishment. First, the imposition of the death penalty must be limited to the most serious common crimes not related to political offences. Second, the sentence must be individualised in conformity with the characteristics of the crime, as well as the participation and degree of culpability of the accused. Finally, the imposition of this sanction is subject to certain procedural guarantees, and compliance with them must be strictly observed and reviewed.


A lawfully sanctioned mandatory sentence of death may be deemed arbitrary where the law fails to distinguish the possibility of different degrees of culpability of the offender and fails to individually consider the particular circumstances of the crime.


All detained persons have the right to live in conditions compatible with the inherent dignity of every human being. States have the duty to ensure that the manner and method of any deprivation of liberty do not exceed the unavoidable level of suffering inherent in detention, and that the detainees' health and welfare are adequately safeguarded. A failure to do so may result in a violation of the absolute prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment.


States may not invoke economic hardships to justify imprisonment conditions that do not conform to the very minimum international standards in this area and that fail to respect the inherent dignity of human beings.


A law that impedes the exercise of the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life may be, per se, contrary to the American Convention on Human Rights and the State has a duty to eliminate or modify it pursuant to Article 2 ACHR.


Regardless of whether a petitioner has a "constitutional right" or a "legitimate expectation", it is fundamental that litigants be able to complete their appeals at the national level as well as petitions and applications before the Commission and Court, respectively, before any execution may be carried out.


National courts must address whether domestic law restricts or violates the rights recognised in the Convention.


Constitutional clauses that effectively deny the right to seek judicial protection against violations of fundamental rights are incompatible with the American Convention.




I. On 23 June 2006, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (hereinafter, the Commission) filed an application against the State of Barbados to determine the international responsibility of the State for the violation of Articles 4.1 and 4.2 ACHR (Right to Life), Articles 5.1 and 5.2 ACHR (Right to Humane Treatment) and Article 8.1 ACHR (Right to a Fair Trial), as well as Article 1.1 ACHR (Obligation to Respect Rights) and Article 2 ACHR (Domestic Legal Effects), to the detriment of Lennox Ricardo Boyce, Jeffrey Joseph, Frederick Benjamin Atkins and Michael McDonald Huggins.


All four alleged victims were sentenced to death pursuant to Section 2 of Barbados' Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) of 1994, which imposes a mandatory sentence of death for persons convicted for the crime of murder. The Commission alleged that the State is responsible for the violations resulting from the mandatory nature of the death penalty imposed upon the alleged victims for their murder convictions, the conditions of their detention, the reading of warrants of execution while their complaints were allegedly pending before domestic courts and the Inter-American Human Rights System, and the alleged failure to bring the domestic legislation of Barbados into compliance with its obligations under the American Convention.


Prior to analysing the preliminary objection submitted by the State and the possible merits of this case, the Tribunal addressed the effect of Barbados' reservation to the American Convention on Human Rights. In interpreting Barbados' reservation, the Court held that it must rely on a strictly textual analysis and ensure the protection of the basic rights of individual human beings. The reservation must be interpreted in accordance with Article 29 ACHR, which implies that a reservation may not be interpreted so as to limit the enjoyment and exercise of the rights and liberties recognised in the Convention to a greater extent than is provided for in the reservation itself. Accordingly, the Court held that Barbados' reservation to the American Convention on Human Rights did not specifically address the issue of mandatory death sentences, and therefore the Court was not barred from addressing that issue.


The Court held that Barbadian domestic law mandated the application of the death penalty for all murders without differentiating between intentional killings punishable by death, that is, those involving the most serious crimes, and intentional killings that would not be punishable by death. Thus, because the law under examination did not allow judges to take into consideration the particular characteristics of the crime, as well as the participation and degree of culpability of the accused when deciding the appropriate form of punishment, the Court held that the State violated Article 4 ACHR.


Additionally, the Court analysed Section 26 of the Constitution of Barbados, which prevents judicial scrutiny over the law that authorises mandatory death sentences for all murderers, which in turn violates the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life. The Court held that the State had failed to abide by its obligations under Article 2 ACHR, in relation to Articles 1.1, 4.1, 4.2 and 25.1 ACHR.


The Court further held that the prison conditions in which the victims' were held amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment as they failed to respect the human dignity of the person, in contravention to Articles 5.1 and 5.2 ACHR. The inmates were forced to use slop buckets in plain view of others, had little to no privacy, as they were being held in cage-like conditions for 23 hours each day, had inadequate lighting and ventilation, their contact with the outside world was extremely limited, and they had few opportunities to exercise.


Finally, the Court held that the reading of death warrants while their domestic appeals and petition before the Inter-American System were pending, constituted a cruel treatment in violation of Article 5 ACHR, in conjunction with Article 1.1 ACHR.


Consequently, the Court considered that the recognition of the violations declared in its judgment were, per se, a form of reparation. Furthermore, to guarantee the non-repetition of the violations of the rights addressed in the judgment, the Court ordered the State to formally commute the death sentence of one of the victims; adopt such legislative or other measures as may be necessary to ensure that the imposition of the death penalty does not contravene the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Convention; adopt legislative or other measures necessary to ensure that the Constitution and laws of Barbados are brought into compliance with the American Convention on Human Rights; and adopt and implement such measures necessary to ensure that the conditions of detention in which the victims in this case are held to comply with requirements of the American Convention.