UNITED NATIONS, Dec 28 (IPS) – A proposed moratorium on the death penalty may be moving closer to a vote in the United Nations General Assembly — but advocates remain wary that rushing a resolution on the issue could lead to a setback for the death-penalty abolition movement as a whole.
Statistics show a steady decline in countries that administer the death penalty. Moreover, each year since 1997, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) has passed by an ever-widening margin a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions with the ultimate aim of abolition. In April, the UNCHR adopted the resolution, promoted by the European Union (EU), by 29 to 19 votes.
Earlier in December, the European anti-death penalty campaign Hands Off Cain (HOC), which has made a U.N.-wide moratorium its main mission, stated that based on its research, the resolution could be securely passed in the 2005 General Assembly.
If passed, argues HOC, such a resolution would raise public awareness of the death penalty as a human rights issue and provide impetus for reform by symbolizing an international consensus.
Yet organisations and officials opposed to the death penalty have also cautioned that unless support for the moratorium in the General Assembly is overwhelmingly clear, a vote would simply make the issue even more divisive.
Human rights groups like Amnesty International, while supporting the idea of a moratorium, have stopped short of advocating for a General Assembly vote. Instead, activists are focusing on mobilizing public opinion, and mustering support among U.N. delegates through behind-the-scenes lobbying, before opening up the often-contentious resolution process.
The moratorium was first brought before the General Assembly by Italy in 1994 and narrowly defeated. In 1999, the European Union again introduced the proposal, but withdrew it when opposition states pushed for last-minute tactical amendments that “would have wrecked the resolution,” according to the official statement of the Finland delegation, which led the EU that year.
The current cautiousness of moratorium supporters reveals that the sting of failure has not yet faded.
Eric Prokosch, Amnesty’s death penalty campaign coordinator, said in an interview that activists are playing it safe: “We feel that it’s wiser to wait until there’s more support for it worldwide.”
But according to HOC, the political balance in the General Assembly has shifted considerably over the past decade. In 1993, there were 97 “retentionist” member states versus 90 that had stopped executions by decree or in practice. Today, 131 member states have abolished the death penalty to some degree, and only 60 actively retain it. The number of officially abolitionist member states has risen to 80.
Samoa, Bhutan and Senegal officially abolished the death penalty in 2004. In 2003, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia strengthened established abolition policies by signing onto EU human rights protocols.
Over the past two years, six countries have imposed execution moratoriums. Thirty-two nations, including Ghana and Morocco, are considered “de facto abolitionists” because they have not put anyone to death in at least a decade.
HOC has projected that in the next General Assembly, at least 88 of 191 member states would vote for a moratorium resolution, while retentionists would be split between abstentions and opposition votes.
Still, the future of the death penalty in the international community appears uncertain.
Within the UNCHR, the debate is growing more polarized. Although five more states supported the moratorium in 2004 compared with 2003, the number of member states formally opposing the resolution also grew, while abstentions dropped from 10 to 5.
Executions worldwide have not waned, suggesting that even if the General Assembly adopted the resolution, the practical impact might be limited. Executions increased from 4,101 in 2002 to 5,606 in 2003, the vast majority carried out in China, according to HOC.
This year, some countries actually enhanced their capital punishment laws. Since late November, Amnesty has reported that Sri Lanka is reinstituting the death penalty after a 28-year moratorium, and that Pakistan has moved to reinstate executions for juveniles.
A representative of a major human rights organisation working with U.N. delegates, who declined to be identified, told IPS that the 1999 withdrawal “showed that it was a mistake to bring it to the GA,” and that recently, to avoid risking defeat, human rights advocates have in fact lobbied against motioning for a General Assembly vote.
“Not every issue, even if you are extremely committed to it, is ripe for bringing to a body at the U.N.,” said the source.
An official in the EU’s U.N. delegation told IPS the prospects for a moratorium depended on “the mathematics of the General Assembly.” The delegation would first have to conduct “comprehensive pre-assessment and lobbying” to gauge its support base among member states.
In 2003, the EU leadership made a “high-level” decision not to pursue a General Assembly vote, added the official, who noted the negotiation process within the General Assembly would be “difficult — almost by definition, confrontational.”
Marco Perduca, the U.N. representative of HOC, believes European nations must work to draw non-western countries into a broad abolitionist coalition. Since “the death penalty is something that has been imposed by colonialism,” post-colonial developing nations might back a moratorium as part of the process of overturning outmoded laws established under imperialism, he suggested.
In Kenya and Zambia, for example, where HOC campaigns heavily, leaders have announced plans to work toward abolition. The number of abolitionist states in Africa has jumped from one to 12 since 1990.
Although Samoa did not officially abolish the death penalty until this year, the policy has long been viewed as a foreign practice. Perina Sila, a representative of Samoa to the United Nations, called the island state’s death penalty statute, inactive since 1952, “a legacy that was handed down to us” via colonial rulers. “No one was put to death, even though we had it in our books,” she told IPS.
HOC has emphasized that both retentionist and abolitionist camps cut across conventional political lines. Although activists believe that establishing democratic rule is a stepping-stone toward abolition, democracy itself does not determine death penalty policy.
Of 62 countries worldwide that still administer executions, 15 are democracies. The United States remains both anomalous and symbolic as the major retentionist democracy, having consistently opposed the moratorium in the UNCHR.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the U.S.-based Death Penalty Information Centre, thinks Washington’s position has both isolated it and hindered the international movement. “It’s a counter-example for those who want to retain the death penalty,” he observed.
Activists say the U.S.-led “war on terror” has emboldened authoritarian governments like China and Iran to execute separatists. Yet reform efforts in the United States also have international resonance. Amnesty’s Prokosch pointed out that the statewide moratorium imposed by Illinois State Governor George Ryan in 2000 sent a political message that “was heard around the world.”
In Dieter’s view, no single U.N. action would force a policy change in the United States or elsewhere: “I wouldn’t expect (a moratorium) to immediately result in a collapse of the death penalty anywhere … So many human rights issues take time to emerge.”
Whether or not they are urging immediate action for a moratorium, anti-death penalty activists agree that a General Assembly resolution would be successful only if individual governments felt compelled to follow it.
Prokosch warned that for a moratorium to have any impact on the ground, “it has to be a convincing call. And if you have a very narrow vote, the countries that are against it will just say, ‘Well, we simply don’t accept that’.”