UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – A bid to have the U.N. General Assembly call for a moratorium on the death penalty drew charges on Wednesday that the European Union was trying to impose its values on others in a throwback to colonialism.
Eighty-seven countries, including EU member states as well as more than a dozen Latin American states and eight African countries, jointly introduced a draft resolution calling for a moratorium with a view to abolishing capital punishment.
The representative for Singapore, which has been criticized by human rights groups for implementing a mandatory death penalty for most drug offenses, warned that the move would “poison the atmosphere between us.”
“We are about to embark on a divisive, unpleasant and unnecessary fight,” Singapore’s Kevin Cheok told the General Assembly’s human rights committee.
Two similar moves in the 1990s failed in the 192-member assembly, whose resolutions are non-binding but carry moral authority. This time, the text of the resolution stops short of an outright demand for immediate abolition.
Instead, the draft calls for “a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.”
It says the punishment “undermines human dignity,” that “there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value” and “any miscarriage or failure of justice in (its) implementation is irreversible and irreparable.”
Opponents of the move, ranging from Botswana to Barbados, Iran, China and Egypt, said more than 100 countries retain the death penalty on the books and argued it was a criminal justice issue clearly within the bounds of national jurisdiction.
They presented 14 amendments seeking to remove the call for a moratorium and instead affirm the sovereign rights of states to decide their own punishments for the most serious crimes.
The first 10 amendments were rejected on Wednesday by around 80 votes to around 70. But up to 22 countries abstained in various votes and another 20 or so did not vote at all, leaving the outcome of a vote on the final text in doubt.
If the resolution is passed by the committee on Thursday, it is expected to go to the full assembly in mid-December where it would need to be approved by a simple majority.
“Sense of Superiority”
Singapore said the European Union was imposing its will.
“There was a time when our views were dismissed. Most of us here struggled for years against this. So how ironic it is that we’re now being told once again that only one view is right and that all other views are wrong.”
Botswana’s representative, Rhee Hetanang, said the amendments were aimed at protecting “some small countries such as our own” against growing interference in internal affairs.
He expressed concern about “increasing trends in this committee which demonstrate the sense of superiority of some in this house who seem to believe their political, cultural and legal systems are better than those of others.”
Several speakers from Caribbean states made similar arguments, adding that such interference could stir resentment and have the unintended effect of strengthening the hand of those in favor of the death penalty in national debates.
Italian ambassador Marcello Spatafora rejected the charges, noting that General Assembly resolutions do not impose any action on states, and that it was a cross-regional effort.
“We don’t want to pick a fight,” he said, during a testy exchange with the Singaporean representative.
The United States has signaled it would oppose the resolution and kept a low profile in the debate.
China, Iran, Iraq, the United States, Pakistan and Sudan account for about 90 percent of all executions worldwide.
Among backers of the moratorium are the Philippines, Australia, Brazil, Gabon, Angola, Turkey and Venezuela.
(Editing by Stuart Grudgings)
In China, a death sentence means a bullet in the back of the head. In Iran, it means death by hanging. In Saudi Arabia, the victim is beheaded by the sword.
World public opinion has been so outraged by the continued use of the death penalty in the 25 countries that carried out executions last year, that a petition carrying five million signatures has been presented to the UN, where yesterday a small group of countries were attempting to block the historic vote on a global moratorium that could lead to an all-out ban.
The UN initiative is the brainchild of Italy, where the association Hands off Cain, campaigning for an end to the death penalty, convinced Prime Minister Romano Prodi to push for an end to the death sentence after the botched and humiliating hanging of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein last year.
If last-minute “killer” amendments to a draft UN resolution do not scupper the initiative, the 192-nation UN human rights committee will begin voting on the measure today. If adopted, it will give a powerful moral boost to those campaigning for an end to the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
As of last night, the draft resolution had been sponsored by 85 states, including all 27 European Union nations. The United States, which executed 53 people last year, will vote against. So will China, which put 2,790 people to death last year. In fact 91 per cent of all death sentences carried out happen in six countries: China, the US, Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq and Iran, where two men were publicly hanged for murder and robbery yesterday.
“The death penalty is abhorrent and a grave abuse of human rights,” said Amnesty International’s death penalty expert, Piers Bannister, who believes that a global moratorium is “long overdue”. “In the overwhelming number of cases around the world a prisoner will be executed after receiving an unfair trial in violation of international laws and standards,” he said. “Capital punishment is always cruel and unnecessary, it doesn’t deter crime and runs the risk of executing the innocent.”
At the UN, Singapore has led the charge against the draft resolution, which calls on all states still maintaining the death sentence to respect a moratorium “with a view to abolishing the death penalty”. The text urges them to “progressively restrict the use of the death penalty” and calls upon the 130 states which have abolished the ultimate penalty not to reintroduce it.
Opponents of the measure object that the resolution would be an interference in domestic affairs, in contravention of the UN charter. At least 10 amendments to this effect were introduced last night by such states as Singapore, Egypt and Botswana. The sovereignty argument prevented a draft resolution from being voted on by the UN in the past. But to allow that argument to pass would “ignore the years of progress on human rights at the UN”, said a European diplomat.
Some EU states baulked at another attempt to bring the moratorium proposal to the UN human rights committee. But the EU is now solidly behind the draft, and campaigners are hopeful that this time the measure will go through.
SINGAPORE: Foreign activists have been vocal in opposing Singapore’s death penalty – but they should consider a more measured response, if any headway is to be made.
Making this call was law academician Professor Michael Hor at a seminar to discuss the penal code reforms at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Bukit Timah campus on Wednesday.
International bodies such as Amnesty International, the United Nations Human Rights Council and the European Union should consider the “local impact” of their censure, the NUS don told a group of students, academics and legal practitioners.
“The moment external activists speak, the Government always bank on the ‘us-against-them’ argument and that clouds the whole issue,” said Prof Hor, adding that leaders here see it as a case of “colonialists telling us what to do”.
This shuts out the possibility of debate and also detracts from the arguments made by local activists who are seen as taking a Western line, he added.
Even so, foreign activists have “done a lot of good”, said Prof Hor. For instance, the Government has since come out with its position and statistics – data on capital punishment is otherwise difficult to obtain, he noted.
He told Today: “I hope the future will see some sort of rapprochement between the two – the Singapore Government and the international community both taking a few steps towards each other.”
This will happen, he added, if there is a degree of openness to discussing practices involving the death penalty. One change he hopes to see is mandatory death sentences, applied in capital offences such as murder, be made a discretionary punishment instead.
Last week, Singapore’s ambassador to the UN, Mr Vanu Gopala Menon, defended the Republic’s stand in a UN discussion, saying that capital punishment was an “important component” of its legal system.
Singapore has “proper legal safeguards to prevent miscarriages of justice”, he said, according to the IPS news service.
While foreigners have been vocal on the death penalty issue, local activists have not been organised, Prof Hor told the seminar participants. Only a few have been openly critical of Singapore’s capital punishment laws, such as lawyers M Ravi and K S Rajah as well as blogger Alex Au.
Prof Hor wondered why religious groups – which, outside Singapore, are typically at the forefront of anti-death penalty movements – have been quiet here, in contrast to their responses to the debate on Section 377A, the law against gay sex.
In the lively question-and-answer session that ensued, participants debated the impact of international development on Singapore’s judicial process. For instance, the UN is set to adopt this month an EU-backed convention of moratorium on capital punishment, said Prof Hor.
A fellow law academician at the forum said it was important the Government consider debating the death penalty because Singapore is fast becoming more multinational and it wants to attract talents, some of whom might hold libertarian views.
“The death penalty is one important thing that they will consider before moving here,” he argued.
Other issues discussed at the seminar included trial by jury, which many agreed was neither cost-effective nor efficient.