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DEATH PENALTY: Vote on U.N. Moratorium Slated for Success

Brian D. Pellot

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 28 2007 (IPS) - Persistence, passion and an inspired last-minute political push from Italy’s Transnational Radical Party and Hands Off Cain has put the human rights alliance one step closer to establishing its ultimate goal of a universal moratorium on the death penalty.

On Jun. 18, the EU Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Luxembourg formally agreed to table their draft resolution on a U.N. moratorium during the next U.N. General Assembly session beginning in September.

“Win or lose, I think this is a strong reflection of the high importance of death penalty abolition to the cause of human rights worldwide,” Mark Warren, a legal researcher specialising in application of international law for the death penalty, told IPS. Death penalty abolition activists had hoped that the ministers would immediately put the long-postponed resolution to a U.N. General Assembly vote, but several European countries argued that more preparation time was needed to ensure the resolution’s success.

Finally, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner stepped forward to mediate a compromise that the Council unanimously approved. Kouchner insisted that in return for a delay in tabling the moratorium resolution, a firm date should be set – the opening of the 62nd U.N. General Assembly session in September.

Representatives at Amnesty International, a human rights organisation that has campaigned to abolish the death penalty since 1977, favor this initial delay if the extra two months are spent improving the proposal.

“We support this resolution provided that it is a cross-regional initiative and provided that it is well prepared,” Yvonne Terlingen, head of Amnesty International’s office at the U.N., told IPS. “We think that there is a very good chance that this resolution will be adopted and that it will constitute an important milestone in abolishing the death penalty.”

Determined to accelerate his organisation’s 13-year-long push toward moratorium, Hands Off Cain president and prominent member of the European Parliament Marco Pannella initiated a high-profile hunger and thirst strike on Apr. 16 that he officially ended upon hearing the Council of Minister’s decision regarding the resolution.

“We welcome the fact that the presentation of the moratorium resolution to the U.N. General Assembly will not be postponed forever,” Pannella said in a statement after ending his fast. “This is a great success and is the result of our non-violent initiative.”

Pannella also attributes his party’s success to an appeal calling for a swift tabling of the moratorium that was signed by dozens of international personalities, scores of European Parliamentarians and more than 50 Nobel laureates, including 1997 Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams.

“I think establishing a universal moratorium provides a benchmark, a tool to work with to continue pressing governments to eliminate the death penalty,” Williams told IPS.

Transnational Radical Party vice president and member of the European Parliament Marco Cappato added his name to the appeal and is optimistic that a majority of the U.N. General Assembly will vote in favour of the moratorium resolution.

“Even the most pessimistic scenario is a winning scenario,” Cappato told IPS, although he noted that two previous attempts to get a death penalty moratorium passed had failed.

“We know that there are a lot of enemies. Sometimes, the worst enemy is bureaucratic behaviour,” Cappato said. “Every step in politics can be contradicted by a different decision.”

In 1994, a death penalty moratorium resolution was defeated in the U.N. by eight votes when 21 countries now part of the 27-member EU abstained. In 1999, the EU suddenly withdrew a resolution proposed by Italy, a decision that Italian Ambassador to the U.N. Francesco Paolo Fulci described as nonsensical, citing a clear majority of countries who were then in favour of the moratorium.

Elisabetta Zamparutti, Hands Off Cain treasurer and Transnational Radical Party member, said that she is optimistic that there will be no such unpleasant surprises this September.

“We’ve been working on this since 1993. We know exactly which countries are in favour, which are against and which will abstain from voting,” Zamparutti told IPS. “We are absolutely confident that the resolution will be approved with more than 100 votes in favour.”

Hands Off Cain predicts that the U.S. will vote against the resolution. The U.S. was one of only 25 countries to carry out the death penalty in 2006, ranking among China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s leading executioners.

“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. He added, however, that the U.S. is likely to support a U.N. initiative pertaining to due process of the law.

“It is quite unlikely that a U.N.-approved moratorium will influence the U.S. on the death penalty,” Williams told IPS. “[This] will take concerted public pressure and legal action at the state and national levels.”

A recent RT Strategies poll has found that 58 percent of U.S. citizens believe that it is time for a moratorium on the death penalty, but some have questioned the validity of this result because of the way in which the question on a moratorium was framed.

Claire Ivers, an EU Advocacy Coordinator for Human Rights Watch, cautioned that obstacles may still lay ahead for the moratorium resolution before it reaches the voting stage in the General Assembly.

“We need to be very careful. It’s a matter of tactics and timing,” she told IPS. “The worst case scenario for an unsuccessful resolution would be that it actually undermines norms on the death penalty. It’s not a very straightforward issue,” she said.

“The resistance to a moratorium is still quite strong. It’s going to be a question of whether the time is right,” Warren told IPS. “Don’t be surprised if there is significant opposition.”

Before making it to a vote in the U.N. General Assembly, the resolution will be reviewed by the EU Council of Foreign Ministers in September to determine if enough momentum exists behind it to survive the committee process. If the resolution does pass through the General Assembly, it remains unclear what concrete results, if any, will be produced.

Rights activists note that a U.N. resolution is not legally binding on any member, “but it is a politically and morally powerful act,” Zamparutti told IPS.

“For democracies, abolition can be a complex process and has to face public opinion,” Cappato stated, adding that a U.N. resolution could provide courage for countries still observing the death penalty to abolish it.

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