UNITED NATIONS - It was another victorious day for the global anti-death penalty movement on Tuesday. Following the lead of the U.N.'s Third Committee in November, the U.N. General Assembly as a whole adopted a non-binding resolution supporting a moratorium on capital punishment.
One hundred and four countries voted in favour of the draft resolution, 54 states voted against and 29 abstained.
Yvonne Terlingen, Amnesty International's representative at the United Nations, described the vote as a "historic step".
"The result was expected, because the Third Committee had already voted overwhelmingly in favour. Countries rarely change their vote between the plenary and the Third Committee, but the result was better than we had in the Third Committee," she told IPS.
In a statement, Sergio D'Elia, general secretary of Hands Off Cain, a group opposing death penalty, said, "After 15 years of campaigning, the approval of the moratorium on death penalty by the U.N. General Assembly represents an historical achievement and, we believe, the beginning of the end for the 'state killer'."
"With this resolution, the United Nations, for the first time, declares that the death penalty is a human rights issue and its phasing out represents serious progress for the world in this field," he said.
Before General Assembly president Srgjan Kerim called upon U.N. member-states to vote, representatives from Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Nigeria and Singapore took the floor to express their opposition.
On behalf of 13 Caribbean states, the representative of Antigua and Barbuda said "given the reality of the situation in the Caribbean, the countries associated with this statement are forced to question the intended argument of the co-authors of the resolution."
"Caribbean opponents of the resolution have not contravened any laws, international or domestic, by maintaining the death penalty in their domestic laws," she said.
The representative of Barbados argued that any attempt by a country or a group of countries to impose its values on other U.N. member states would be an infringement of national sovereignty.
Singapore, which has been outspoken in support of the right to retain capital punishment, agreed that "for many delegations this is a criminal justice issue, and not purely a human rights issue, as the European Union and its allies assert. This resolution will make no difference to Singapore's policies. We will continue to implement policies that work for us and best serve the interest of our people."
Still, Terlingen stressed that "there is a worldwide trend towards abolishing the death penalty. Even if the debate doesn't reach them today, it will reach them tomorrow. You see it for example in Africa, where there is a split in votes. There are, for instance, Islamic countries in the north of Africa which have voted in favour of the resolution."
"It means that also in that bloc of countries there is a trend and that it's going to be debated. This will stimulate the debate, because next year you have the same thing that is going to happen. It's an annual resolution," she said.
According to figures from Amnesty International, 133 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Last year, just 25 countries carried out executions, of which 91 percent took place in China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and the United States.
Compared to 2,148 executions in 2005 worldwide, statistics show a decrease in implementation of the death penalty, with 1,591 recorded executions in 2006.
"This [result of the voting] is being reported back in to the countries and next year the secretary-general will have to report to the General Assembly on how all countries have implemented the resolution. Countries themselves will have to come up with an answer as to what they have done or why they have decided not to do something," Terlingen said.
In a statement from Algiers, where he is visiting the site of a bomb attack last week that killed 41 people, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "particularly encouraged by the support expressed for this initiative from many diverse regions of the world."
"This is further evidence of a trend towards ultimately abolishing the death penalty," he said.
Asked what the real world impact of the resolution would be, Terlingen responded, "I think it will be gradual."
"Don't expect an immediate change as a result of this resolution, but I think that over years to come you will see the death penalty change. This only happened because there is a trend towards abolition. It will accelerate the trend you have worldwide."
© 2007 Inter Press Service