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DEATH PENALTY: Italy Keeps Up Pressure for U.N. Moratorium

Ernst-Jan Pfauth

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 6 2007 (IPS) - Italian diplomats at the U.N. are working hard to win over more support for their proposed resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions – but are still short of the necessary pledges to be certain that an eventual General Assembly vote would be decisive enough to give a historic boost to the abolitionist cause.

Some 88 countries have so far signed a declaration of association with Italy’s death penalty moratorium proposal, according to an official from Amnesty International. “But the Italians need at least 100 signatures,” one source here told IPS. This was the minimum number for Italy to be confident that the moratorium would win a majority vote in the 192-member General Assembly.

“There certainly is momentum for a U.N. moratorium,” Louise Arbor, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, confirmed to IPS. “I sense that there is a growing will for a moratorium,” she said, adding confidently, “and also for, in the end, abolishing the death penalty.”

A U.N. General Assembly call for a universal halt on state executions would not be binding for U.N. members. But rights activists believe a strongly-backed call for a moratorium would hasten the day when the death penalty as punishment would be consigned to history.

Over the past two decades there has been a steady increase in the number of countries abolishing the death penalty. Death sentences and executions are still carried out in some 69 countries, according to Amnesty International. But only a handful of these countries – China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.S – accounted for most of the 4,000 or more state executions carried out worldwide annually. Some 25,000 people are believed to be waiting on death rows worldwide, according to human rights researcher Mark Warren.

China and the United States are likely to oppose the Italian death penalty moratorium when it comes before the General Assembly. But neither country is expected to openly campaign against the Italian resolution, according to a diplomat whose country was opposed to the moratorium.

This did not mean the road ahead for a moratorium resolution was free of potential obstacles. “The death penalty is a sensitive subject which divides the U.N.,” Yvonne Terlingen of Amnesty International told IPS. There were “political pitfalls” ahead.

Terlingen said she expected Italy to issue soon a statement on the moratorium issue in the General Assembly. Finland, a firm supporter of Italy on this issue, already prepared the ground for doing this last December. This called on all countries which had not yet abolished the death penalty “to abolish it completely and, in the meantime, to establish a moratorium on executions”.

“The abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights,” Kirsti Lintonen, Finland’s ambassador to the U.N., said at the time. “The right to life was universally affirmed by article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The death penalty was not an effective deterrent and once carried out could never be reversed because of a judicial mistake. Finland’s statement was backed by 85 countries.

Italy’s statement could be expected to express the same principles and abolitionist arguments. But it would be more influential if it had more countries supporting it. Italy, currently a rotating member of the U.N. Security Council, should be able to use this influential position to achieve this.

Just what could be expected in the General Assembly when Italy seeks to table its moratorium resolution is difficult to predict. Diplomats here recall the difficulties faced by the European Union when it tried to do this in the past.

In 2001, Singapore – cited by Amnesty International as having the highest execution rate per capita in the world – objected. It argued that it was for each individual country to decide for itself whether to apply the death penalty. This view won enough support to become one of the main reasons that the resolution did not go into voting procedure.

The more pragmatic members of the EU are not likely to risk provoking such opposition again. But the EU is clearly anxious to demonstrate full support for Italy’s moratorium initiative. Last December it issued a strong statement stressing that the abolition of the death penalty was a “fundamental value” of the 27-nation body and a prerequisite for membership.

The European Parliament clearly believes that it is high time for the EU to flex its diplomatic muscles and come to Italy’s aid. In February it called for a sense of “urgency” in supporting the Italian moratorium initiative. Every political and diplomatic effort should be made “to ensure the success of this resolution,” a statement said.

The Italian government has given itself until the end of the current General Assembly session in September to table its moratorium proposal. But this has not reassured critics at home.

Last month, Marco Pannella, a member of the European Parliament and president of the rights group Hands off Cain, accused the government of “delay and errors” in bringing the moratorium proposal before the U.N. On Mar. 21, Pannella announced he was going on a hunger strike to put pressure on the government to move faster.

A week later, the spokesman for the Italian ministry of foreign affairs, Pasquale Ferrara, assured the public that Italy was working “intensely” on the moratorium issue. This would be on the agenda when the EU foreign ministers met in Luxembourg on Apr. 23.

“The Italian government is losing time,” Elisabetta Zamparutti of Hands off Cain, told IPS. “The U.N. moratorium resolution should be presented immediately.”

She added that the organisation would be holding an Easter march through Rome to exert pressure on the Italian government to act more swiftly.

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