by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 7 (IPS) – When the United Nations votes next week on a draft resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, there will be more than a dozen non-committal member states who will neither vote for such a resolution nor against it.

They will either abstain or take the easy way out: absent themselves at voting time. Both “abstain” and “absent” are reflected on the U.N.’s vote counts.

“These may be the decisive votes on whether or not the resolution will be adopted by the majority of the 192 member states,” predicts one Third World diplomat.

But Yvonne Terlingen, head of Amnesty International’s U.N. Office, told IPS that, as of now, there are 75 member states which are co-sponsoring the draft resolution — and all of which are expected to vote for it.

But the opponents of the resolution are likely to undermine it by proposing several amendments – described by some as “wrecking amendments” – that will dilute its core content.

Fully conscious of this, Terlingen said: “We are urging all member states to support the text and resist any amendments that would seek to alter the purpose of this important resolution.”

Initially, the vote next week will be in the U.N.’s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee (also called the Third Committee), which comprises all 192 member states.

The General Assembly, the U.N.’s highest policy-making body, will sit in plenary to vote on the resolution sometime in mid-December.

But as befits past traditions, the pattern of voting in the Assembly will generally remain the same as at the committee stage.

In 1971 and 1977, the General Assembly adopted two resolutions on capital punishment, which said it was “desirable” that the death penalty be abolished in all countries. But in 1999, a similar resolution was withdrawn before it could be put to a vote, primarily because of its divisiveness.

The opposition to the current resolution comes mostly from members of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), the League of Arab States, and also by China and some of the Caribbean and Asian countries, where capital punishment is still in the statute books. But the unknown factors are the abstainers and the absentees.

Since the resolution has been drafted and nurtured by the 27-member European Union (EU), it has been viewed mostly as a European initiative.

But Terlingen dismisses this notion by pointing out that the 75 co-sponsors demonstrate “broad regional support for ending this cruel and inhuman practice” of death penalty.

She said that 10 countries representing all regions in the world – Albania, Angola, Brazil, Croatia, Gabon, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, Portugal (for the EU) and Timor Leste – co-authored the draft resolution.

Terlingen said that no fewer than 130 out of 192 member states have already abolished the death penalty in law or practice, and only 25 countries carried out executions in 2006.

Over 50 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes since 1990, she added.

In Asia, she pointed out, about 25 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. In Africa, only six out of 53 states carried out executions in 2006.

“The worldwide trend towards abolition of the death penalty has been recognised by the U.N. secretary-general and the high commissioner for human rights and both support the call for the moratorium on executions,” she added.

“We hope that more countries will join the co-sponsors of this resolution,” said Terlingen.

The most vocal and articulate opposition to the current resolution comes from Singapore, which is a strong advocate of the death penalty and continues to enforce it as part of its criminal justice system.

Ambassador Vanu Gopala Menon of Singapore told IPS last week that the resolution will only “sour the atmosphere” at the United Nations and “cause unnecessary divisiveness in the house.”

“It is not clear to me what the EU hopes to gain with this resolution. It may give them a sense of moral satisfaction but it is not going to change the positions of countries that maintain that the death penalty serves to deter serious crimes,” he added. Menon also told the Third Committee last week that some in the EU have “disingenuously” suggested that a moratorium on executions is a “compromise”.

“It is not,” he said. “It is clear that the ultimate objective of a moratorium is abolition.”

“Whether the draft resolution is on a moratorium or the abolition of the death penalty, its goal is to impose the views and values of the sponsors on those who hold a different view,” he added.

Menon said the issue before is not really about the merits or demerits of the death penalty. In the absence of an international consensus, countries on either side of the argument have no right to impose their opinions, he argued.

“Every state has the sovereign right to choose its own political, economic, social and legal systems based on what is in their own best interests,” he declared.