by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 25 (IPS) – The contentious debate on the death penalty — which split the 192-member U.N. General Assembly last December — is refusing to die.

A group of 58 countries, strongly supportive of capital punishment, has written to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “placing on record that they are in persistent objection to any attempt to impose a moratorium on the use of the death penalty or its abolition.”

Any attempts to place either a moratorium or abolish capital punishment are in violation of existing stipulations under international law, according to their written submission, described in U.N. jargon as a “note verbale”, to the secretary-general.

The statement has been issued on the eve of the International Death Penalty Abolition Day, which will be commemorated next Saturday, Mar. 1.

All 58 countries seeking to “retain” the death penalty — described as “retentionists” — have reinforced their pro-death penalty arguments through a collective note.

The list includes virtually all of the members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), along with the Bahamas, China, North Korea, Japan, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Uganda, Singapore and Zimbabwe.

“This note verbale, signed by 58 delegations, underscores once again that there is no international consensus on the use of the death of penalty,” Ambassador Vanu Gopala Menon of Singapore told IPS.

When a disputed resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty was put to a vote in the General Assembly last December, there were 104 in favour and 54 against, with 29 abstentions. The “ayes” won.

Still, the General Assembly resolution, unlike a Security Council resolution, is not binding and does not have legal force or authority.

At least four countries — Belize, Chad, India and the United States — which voted against the resolution in December, did not sign the note verbale for some unaccountable reason.

But eight countries that abstained — Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Fiji, Guinea, Laos, Swaziland and the United Arab Emirates — have signed the statement and joined the retentionists.

A Third World diplomat, who was also a signatory to the note verbale, told IPS: “The collective statement is to signal to the other side that we do not accept the outcome of the General Assembly vote. We expected the battle to be resumed.”

As a result, the death penalty issue will come up again during the 63rd session of the General Assembly, beginning September this year.

“That’s almost provided for in the resolution that was adopted through a vote, which places the issue on the agenda of the 63rd session,” the diplomat added. “We opposed it, saying that we should avoid this acrimony again, at least not so soon.”

But the co-sponsors of the December resolution, he pointed out, rejected that argument, and insisted on putting on the agenda of the next General Assembly sessions.

In their statement, the 58 countries say that capital punishment has often been characterised as a human rights issue in the context of the right of the convicted prisoner to life.

“However, it is first and foremost an issue of the criminal justice system and an important deterring element vis-a-vis the most serious crimes. It must therefore be viewed from a much broader perspective and weighed against the rights of the victims and the right of the community to live in peace and security.”

The statement continued: “Every state has an inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social, cultural and legal justice systems, without interference in any form by another state.” Furthermore, “Nothing in the U.N. charter authorises the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”

The campaign for the abolition of the death penalty has been spearheaded by the 27-member European Union (EU), which claimed a moral victory with the General Assembly vote.

Singapore, one of the consistent campaigners on the side of the death penalty, has strongly disagreed with the EU on the issue of capital punishment.

Menon, the Singapore envoy, told the General Assembly in December just after the vote: “It is unfortunate that the sponsors have handled this not as a debate but a lecture — their views, in their reckoning, being the only legitimate ones.”

He said “they may have made pronouncements to the contrary, but there was never any real attempt to seek consensus or persuade by argument.”

“We saw the main sponsors refusing to acknowledge an article in the U.N. Charter, which states that ‘nothing in the Charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State’.”

“They opposed what they said were selective quotations and then quoted selectively themselves,” Menon said.

“They also voted en masse against amendments which no reasonable person would dispute — for instance, that there is a great diversity of legal, social, economic and cultural conditions in the world,” he declared.