Guarded Optimism for Moratorium Vote

United Nations - Celebrities, campaigners and leading human rights organisations gathered here to celebrate the World Day Against the Death Penalty on Wednesday expressed cautious optimism about a global moratorium on executions expected to be voted on by the U.N. General Assembly in the coming weeks.

The mood at their press conference was upbeat, with campaigners and panelists animatedly discussing how, after years of effort, this was the "right time for the resolution".

Michel Taube, speaking on behalf of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, which represents more than 64 groups working against capital punishment, said, "(The) majority of the world is in our camp and that is the most decisive case for us. There are many reasons to believe that the General Assembly is ready to pass the resolution. Across continents, the trend is toward abolition. How can the 101 countries that have abolished the (death) penalty not stand in favour of the vote?"

Sister Helen Prejean, author of the best-selling book "Dead Man Walking", and actors Tim Robbins and Mike Farrell, all veteran anti-death penalty campaigners in the U.S., spoke passionately about the flaws in the capital punishment system.

"We call for consistency in human rights. We cannot end one human rights violation with another human rights violation, because human rights are inalienable," Sister Prejean said at the meeting.

Robbins emphasised that no state had the right to ask a person to kill another. "The guards who work in prisons, those who actually execute people, face severe trauma. The death penalty retains itself as long it is in the abstract. When you understand the human cost of the death penalty, you can no longer support it," he said.

Earlier, Yvonne Terlingen, Amnesty International's U.N. representative, warned that the battle for the U.N. moratorium was not yet won. "It is still a question as to whether all the countries who have committed (themselves) will stand up for the vote when the time comes. If there are any amendments in the resolution, there is a chance some countries may back down. It's going to be a tough fight. But we have reason to believe that there will be enough votes," she told IPS.

Piers Bannister, a researcher with the death penalty team at Amnesty International, echoed the same guarded sentiment. "It is like predicting a sporting event. So we are cautiously optimistic. It will be problematic for the resolution if instead of being viewed as a human rights issue, it is viewed as a sovereignty issue," he told IPS. But he agreed that the chances for the passing of the resolution had never been better.

Meanwhile, the collective mood of diplomats at the U.N. has also been fairly optimistic about the final success of the EU-backed cross-regional moratorium initiative.

Three days after the opening of the 62nd U.N General Assembly on Sep. 25, diplomats from nearly 100 countries lined up at a ministerial meeting on the moratorium hosted by Italy and Portugal, currently holding the EU presidency.

Their impressive show of numbers was a clear indication that there is increasing support for the moratorium proposal in the 192-member General Assembly. Ninety-five countries represented at the ministerial meeting had already pledged their support for the moratorium initiative in writing. "For the moratorium to be adopted, 96 votes are needed," Amnesty's Bannister told IPS.

"The death penalty belongs to a culture that should be consigned to the past," Massimo D'Alema, Italy's minister of foreign affairs, told the meeting. "The time is right, the conditions are right, and now we must set realistic goals which can be achieved quickly. It would be a waste to miss this opportunity." Italy has been campaigning for 13 years for the U.N. General Assembly to pass a moratorium on executions.

The Philippines -- one of the few countries in Southeast Asia openly supporting the moratorium resolution -- was represented at the ministerial meeting by its foreign minister Alberto G. Romulo.

"Much progress has been achieved by human kind and efforts have always been made to improve human life. Yet this barbaric practice of the death penalty remains with us. Therefore, the Philippines will support this resolution. We must change the paradox of making a wrong right by ending life," Romulo said. The Philippines abolished the death penalty in June last year.

Only 95 countries who signed a declaration of association with the moratorium in December 2006, and those who have abolished the death penalty, were invited to the ministerial meeting.

This meant that India and China, the world's two most populous nations, were conspicuously absent. Both countries retain the death penalty. China is responsible for most of the world's state executions, although the number is said to be falling.

Also absent were representatives from the U.S., currently with an unofficial moratorium on executions as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to rule on whether lethal injection, the main method of execution in the U.S., violates the constitution as "cruel and unusual punishment".

The U.S, Singapore and several other countries are expected to oppose the moratorium on the grounds that every country has a sovereign right to decide on this issue according to its own criminal justice system.

"The people of the different states that allow the death penalty have chosen to not abolish it through the democratic process," Rick Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. mission at the U.N., told IPS.

Kevin Cheok, deputy permanent representative at Singapore's U.N mission, told IPS that even if the resolution was eventually passed, it would make no difference to his country. "We are a sovereign nation and have the right to make the decision for ourselves," he said.

According to a source in the U.N. General Assembly, there is no official word on when the moratorium resolution will come up for a vote. "The draft resolution is still on the table," Amnesty's Terlingen told IPS. But she expected a vote "anytime after Oct. 24".

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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