Moratorium Vote Leaves Deep Divisions by Anuradha Kher

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 16 (IPS) – It was a victorious day for the anti-death penalty movement on Thursday, as the Third Committee of the U.N. General Assembly passed a symbolic resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on capital punishment.

Ninety-nine countries voted in favour of the resolution, 52 voted against and there were 33 abstentions. Eight countries were altogether absent from the meeting — the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Kiribati, Peru, Senegal, Seychelles, Somalia and Tunisia.

The United States, Singapore and China joined many developing countries, notably from the Islamic world, in voting against the resolution, while abstainers included Bhutan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo and Cuba.

Months of meetings, campaigns and conferences intended to push the moratorium at the U.N. General Assembly culminated in this week’s vote, where conflicting views on the legality and effectiveness of capital punishment made for a tense atmosphere.

“The issue arouses a lot of strong feelings and that’s what we saw among delegates at the meeting,” Yvonne Terlingen, the Amnesty International’s representative at the United Nations, told IPS.

The draft resolution, which was co-sponsored by the European Union bloc and 60 other countries, still needs to be submitted to the 192-member General Assembly for a vote. If approved, it would be non-binding, but would carry moral weight. Diplomats said that the GA was widely expected to endorse the decision, possibly next month.

“We are happy with the substantive majority of countries who voted for the resolution. It was more than what we had expected,” Terlingen said. “We believe this will encourage many more countries to abolish capital punishment or at least review their laws regarding it.”

Eventually, that is what the anti-death penalty movement hopes for. One of the sponsors of the resolution and a major anti-death penalty advocate, the European Union, echoed this sentiment.

“This is a good day for human rights and the European goal of achieving the abolition of the death penalty all over the world. Based on this broad coalition, we will continue our efforts to reach this objective in the interest of humanity,” said the EU commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

In an emotional statement after the resolution was passed, Italy’s Ambassador to the U.N., Marcello Spatafora said, “I strongly hope that, in approving this resolution, we will be starting a process in which we will be all working together, we will be all walking together along the same path, with equal dignity, with full mutual respect.”

But the vote tally that Terlingen and others on the anti-death penalty side view as a substantive majority and broad coalition, Singapore and others interpret as signaling no clear consensus on the matter.

“The vote on the resolution made clear that there is no international consensus on the death penalty. Almost half the membership of the U.N. did not vote in favour of the resolution. Many delegations were obviously uncomfortable with it. This is a criminal justice, not a human rights issue,” Vanu Gopala Menon, Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations, told IPS.

He said that the main sponsors have only succeeded in exacerbating the divisions and polarising the membership by trying to impose their views on the rest of the world.

“Singapore will not change its criminal justice system in response to this vote. It is our sovereign right to decide based on our own criminal justice system,” he added.

Over the two days of debate, countries opposed to the resolution, including Barbados and Syria, argued that it smacked of moral righteousness on the part of proponents and that it touched on issues of national sovereignty.

But Terlingen said that “the resolution was being backed not only by the EU but also by a large number of countries in Africa, South America and many others from the South.”

In an effort to make their point of view heard, countries such as Singapore, the U.S., Egypt and Barbados proposed 14 written and four oral amendments to the resolution – including the right to life of unborn children – were introduced. In the months leading to the vote, anti-death penalty activists feared that these amendments would jeopardise the resolution, but to their surprise, all of them were defeated in debates preceding the vote.

For once, the United States and Iran were on the same side of an issue. “The U.S. recognises that the supporters of this resolution hold principled positions on the issue of the death penalty. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that international law does not prohibit capital punishment,” Robert S. Hagen, deputy representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, said in his statement at the meeting.

He also said that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifically recognises the right of countries to impose the death penalty for the most serious crimes carried out with appropriate safeguards and observance of due process.

In the United States, there is currently a de facto moratorium on capital punishment as the country’s highest court reviews the legality of lethal injections as a method of execution.

According to Amnesty Intentional, more than 90 percent of executions last year took place in China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and the U.S. But it said that the number of recorded executions has decreased from 2,148 in 2005 to 1,591 the following year.

A growing number of countries are abolishing the death penalty – 133 countries have done so in practice or in law.

Two proposed death penalty moratoriums previously reached the floor of the general assembly: in 1994 and 1999. The former was defeated by eight votes and the latter withdrawn at the last minute.