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ROME, May 28 2008 (IPS) - Any attempt to measure the effects of the resolution for a universal moratorium against the death penalty approved by the UN General Assembly last December 18 must also take into account the fact that its very passage has created an atmosphere conducive to elimination of the practice, writes Elisabetta Zamparutti, a leader in the Radical Party who prepared the annual report on the Death Penalty in the World for Hands Off Cain. She was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 2008 In this analysis, the author writes that the most significant steps towards abolition have occurred almost exclusively in Africa. However, the delays of the UN vote have also led European countries to go ahead and definitively eliminate the death penalty from their legal codes. This happened in France and Italy, where the death penalty was banned by the 2007 Constitution. But there is an important element of the resolution beyond the call for abolition of the practice: a demand that the death penalty countries furnish information on its implementation to the UN Secretary-General. Ninety-nine percent of the world\’s executions are carried out by totalitarian regimes in many of which, China especially, information relative to capital sentencing and executions is considered a state secret. In all of these countries, the definitive solution involves less a battle to end the death penalty than the fight for democracy, the affirmation of the rule of law, and the promotion of respect for political rights and civil liberties for which transparency is fundamental.
There were two rival approaches to winning passage of this document: the first was that of the bureaucracy of the European Union which wanted to maintain its monopoly on the initiative but which ended up producing no more than a series of postponements and achieving nothing. The second was that proposed by Hands Off Cain, which was supported by the abolitionist groups and hoped to build a world-wide coalition of representative governments that would introduce the resolution. It was the latter which eventually prevailed thanks to a campaign promoted by Hands Off Cain and the Non-Violent Radical Party that lasted almost a year and involved governments from every continent, some of which were energised by the initiative and decided to eliminate capital punishment in view of the upcoming vote.
In July 2007, Rwanda, which had been a supporter of the death penalty, passed a law abolishing the practice for all crimes. In September of the same year, the government of Gabon followed suit, issuing a decree abolishing the punishment which is now under consideration by Parliament. Gabon subsequently played a crucial role during the debate at the UN on the resolution, arguing in favour of the moratorium. The government of Burundi then issued a similar decree which it submitted to its parliament. Senator and ex-Minister for Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Leonard She Okitundu, announced the introduction of an anti-death penalty bill, while the country’s Commission on Justice has been charged with revising the criminal code and will present its recommendations to the government in coming days. The revision of the penal code represents a new opportunity for the abolitionist movement in a country that has suffered some of the worst crimes against humanity in recent history.
The most significant steps towards abolition, including across-the-board commutation of death sentences, have occurred almost exclusively in Africa. However, the delays of the UN vote have also led some European countries to definitively eliminate the death penalty from their legal codes. This happened in France and Italy, where the death penalty was banned by the 2007 Constitution.
Uzbekistan reversed its support for capital punishment on 1 January 2008 and last April the country’s supreme court initiated a review of death sentences, commuting 17. For those guilty of homicide, prison sentences from 20-25 years, less time served, were imposed. And in April 2008 Cuba announced the commutation of all death sentences it had handed out.
In contrast, in 2007 and the first months of 2008, only two countries -Afghanistan and Ethiopia- resumed imposition of the death penalty, which had been suspended for a few years. By comparison, there were six such cases in 2006.
As for the United States, on 16 April 2008 in a 7-to-2 decision the US Supreme Court ruled that lethal injection was a constitutionally acceptable method of execution, ending a de facto suspension of the punishment that had lasted six months, from the day the court agreed to hear the appeal. The case involved two death-row inmates in Kentucky who argued that lethal injection as currently administered causes terrible pain and thus violates the constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment”.
Some consider this decision a step backwards with respect to the UN moratorium resolution. But in reality the Supreme Court was not asked to rule on the constitutionality of the death penalty per se but specifically on whether this particular method of execution was cruel and unusual and thus in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The fundamental problem is not whether this or that method of execution is humane, or civilised, or not, but the death penalty itself, an anachronism that should no longer exist at this point in history. The Supreme Court’s decision cannot, therefore, be considered a blow to the abolitionist movement or a measure of the political value of the UN resolution, which, to begin with, is not juridically binding.
Moreover, the recent abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey and the legal or de facto moratoria in Illinois, Maryland, California, New York, and North Carolina are proof that an irreversible process is underway in the US as well, where abolition or a moratorium can be imposed only by the US Congress or, given the US’s federalist system, by the legislatures or governors of individual states.
But there is an important element of the resolution beyond the call for abolition of the practice: a demand that the death penalty countries furnish information on its implementation to the UN Secretary-General. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s executions are carried out by totalitarian regimes in many of which, China especially, information relative to capital sentencing and executions is considered a state secret.
In all of these countries, the definitive solution involves less a fight against the death penalty than the fight for democracy, the affirmation of the rule of law, and the promotion of respect for political rights and civil liberties for which transparency is a fundamental component. This is why it is important to act on that part of the resolution that provides for the transmission of information via the Report on the Death Penalty that was demanded by the office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. The UN Secretary General is supposed to present the report at the next General Assembly. In this regard, Hands Off Cain is lobbying for the appointment of a Special Envoy on the death penalty that would on the one hand gather necessary information for the report, and on the other, work until this state secret is abolished. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
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