By Peter Steinfels, New York Times, 22 Dec 2007

Mario Marazziti’s name appeared in this column on Dec. 23, 2000, almost exactly seven years ago. An Italian journalist and spokesman for the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Roman Catholic movement of lay people known for its efforts on behalf of the poor and peacemaking, he had been bustling around holiday-happy Manhattan.

He was not sightseeing or shopping for gifts, but advocating a United Nations resolution against the death penalty.

This past week, Mr. Marazziti, now 55, was back in town to finish the job. On Tuesday, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. The resolution was nonbinding. Mr. Marazziti called it a milestone, nonetheless.

It sets “a new moral standard of justice,” he said at a small gathering after the vote, making it harder for nations to ignore. It stamps the death penalty as a matter of legitimate concern for the international community, he added; it calls for the secretary general to monitor and report on the extent of executions. And, he argued, it makes it easier for countries that are “de facto abolitionist” — which he defined as ones where no one had been executed in at least a decade — to chisel their practice into law.

Tuesday’s General Assembly vote was 104 nations in favor, 54 against and 29 abstaining. Among the opposed, the United States found itself lined up with Iran, Syria, Sudan, China and North Korea. All European Union nations, almost all Latin American states and United States allies like Turkey and Israel supported the resolution.

But the real vote had taken place a month earlier when the resolution was fiercely debated by the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee, often simply called the Third Committee, composed of all 192 member states of the United Nations.

Opposition to the resolution had long been led by Singapore, Egypt and a few Caribbean nations like Barbados. They maintained that the death penalty was strictly an internal affair of criminal law and that the pressure to abolish it reflected a European-based form of neo-colonialism.

An anti-capital-punishment resolution introduced by Italy was defeated in 1994. In 1999, faced with similar opposition, the European Union withdrew another such resolution.

Islamic nations were also influenced by the argument that the death penalty was an intrinsic part of Islamic law and could not be renounced in principle, however flexibly it might be applied in practice.

Working with other groups opposed to the death penalty like Amnesty International, the Sant’Egidio Community set out to counter Islamic reservations by urging a moratorium rather than outright abolition, thus setting aside the question of principle. By such intermediate steps, after all, Judaism long ago and Christianity more recently had moved away from biblical affirmations of the death penalty.

To counter the accusation of European neo-colonialism, Sant’Egidio led a campaign to gather signatures from all around the world on a petition for a moratorium. Seven years ago, Mr. Marazziti delivered more than three million of those signatures to the United Nations. This November, he delivered the petition anew, now carrying five million signatures from 153 countries.

Nations opposed to the resolution still tried to block it in November with crippling amendments. Egypt mobilized the support of primarily Muslim countries, for example, with a last-minute amendment extending the resolution “to protect the lives of unborn children.”

Led by the Philippines, a number of countries, including many Latin American ones that ban abortions, replied that they would sponsor a resolution on that topic but that raising it now was only a distraction from the issue at hand.

The Vatican’s representative at the United Nations expressed regret that when the notion of a right to life was not applied consistently from the beginning to the end of life, the result was political maneuvering.

Egypt’s amendments were defeated, and the Vatican welcomed the moratorium resolution, both in November and this week, after it was passed by the General Assembly.

On Tuesday, Mr. Marazziti repeatedly spoke of the General Assembly’s action as strengthening the “culture of life,” a phrase that Pope John Paul II had popularized in connection with opposition to abortion.

Asked whether he connected ending the death penalty with ending abortion, Mr. Marazziti replied that he and Sant’Egidio believed that “life should be defended from the very beginning to the end.” But abolishing the death penalty, for which there were plenty of nonreligious arguments, he said, would be an important step toward a “general culture of life as a new proposal for our time.”

He recognized how far the world remained from such a culture. Not only was the United Nations resolution not binding, but the support of many countries stemmed from winning over the political elite, rather the public at large.

The Sant’Egidio Community itself won over many officials in Africa. Of the approximately 50,000 members that the movement claims, one third are African; and a major program to deal with AIDS in 10 African countries has increased Sant’Egidio’s moral standing on the continent.

“We cannot promise money or use power,” Mr. Marazziti said. So success rested on personal relationships and patient pleading, and he was not embarrassed by the focus on the political elites. “A leading class must sometimes take the responsibility of being a leading class,” he said. But he knew that the task of changing public opinion remained.

Seven years ago, Mr. Marazziti was quick to admit that there were bigger problems in the world than the death penalty. On Tuesday, what with wars, terrorism and climate change, it was hard to argue that things had changed for the better. But what about for him personally?

His response was instantaneous. He grinned, whipped out his cellphone and clicked on the picture of his 17-month-old grandson. Culture of life, indeed!