GENEVA - Capital punishment continues to exist because in some countries people are barraged with propaganda depicting it as a curb on crime, which it is not, said Federico Mayor Zaragoza, chair of an international commission against the death penalty that inaugurated its new headquarters in Geneva Monday.
Mayor Zaragoza, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) from 1987 to 1999, said that is the case of right-wing Guatemalan presidential candidate Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general favoured to win the Nov. 6 runoff who has pledged to restore the death penalty to clamp down on rampant violent crime.
At the opening of the fourth meeting of the International Commission against the Death Penalty (ICDP), made up of high-ranking personalities from various countries, Mayor Zaragoza told IPS that reactions like Pérez Molina's might be comprehensible "because these are places where the situation is extremely difficult, especially as a result of drug trafficking," as well as paramilitary movements. That is also the case in Mexico, he added.
But the death penalty has no dissuasive effect, just as a rise in the price of drugs does not curtail consumption, he said.
The ICDP is focusing in its meeting this week on the application of capital punishment in cases involving drug-related crimes, said another member of the commission, Ruth Dreifuss, who was president of the Swiss Confederation in 1999.
The situation in Africa, where there is an emerging trend away from the death penalty, is another question on the commission's agenda.
Europe and South America are virtually free of the death penalty, with the exceptions of Belarus and Guyana, respectively. In both regions, said Dreifuss, the countries have supported each other in the will to do away with capital punishment.
The commission will also discuss the case of China, where the members hope a first step taken will be the provision of information on the use of the death penalty.
Although it is known that China is by far the world leader in capital punishment, there are no figures on just how widely it is used – to the extent that global rights watchdog Amnesty International will only say the country executes "thousands", because "the information does not exist," said Dreifuss.
The former Swiss leader said the ICDP is now based in Switzerland because her country is a staunch opponent of the death penalty. Like many other countries, it considers the death penalty a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment that violates human rights.
At the international level there is a contradiction because although all cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment is prohibited by the Torture Convention and other global treaties, 58 countries still have the death penalty on their books, she said.
So far, 104 countries have abolished the death penalty while another 35 have a moratorium on executions, Mayor Zaragoza pointed out. "That makes a total of 139 countries without executions, which is good news," he enthused.
The ultimate goal of the ICDP and other institutions opposed to the death penalty is complete abolition, said Dreifuss.
But the commission has set a more immediate target: a global moratorium by 2015. Many countries have taken the first step on the way to abolition – suspending executions.
Dreifuss said that while a universal moratorium is gaining support year by year in the U.N. General Assembly, "it is still far from being recognised by all."
The moratorium should also extend to the handing down of death sentences, and not only to executions, she said.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay concurred, in a statement issued on the occasion of the World Day against the Death Penalty, celebrated Monday, Oct. 10.
"Abolishing the death penalty," she said "is a long process for many countries, which often only comes to closure after a period of difficult and even acrimonious national debate. Until they reach that point, I urge those States still employing the death penalty to place a formal moratorium on its use with a view to ultimately scrap the punishment altogether everywhere."
She also expressed her point of view to the members of the ICDP who visited her at OHCHR headquarters in the Palais Wilson on the shores of Lake Leman.
One of the reasons the ICDP secretariat was moved from Madrid to Geneva was to boost its visibility among the U.N. agencies and international organisations based in this Swiss city.
Besides Mayor Zaragoza and Dreifuss, the commission includes former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato; former Haitian prime minister Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis; former foreign minister of Algeria Mohammed Bedjaoui; former French justice minister Robert Badinter; and former Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The other members are former U.N. high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour, from Canada; former deputy secretary for human rights in Argentina Rodolfo Mattarollo; the chairwoman of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, Asma Jahangir; UNESCO chair on philosophy and human rights Ioanna Kuçuradi from Turkey; and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who in 2009 added his state to the list of 15 U.S. states to abolish the death penalty.