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Q&A: 'State Secrecy Over Death Penalty Must End'

Sabina Zaccaro interviews ELISABETTA ZAMPARUTTI from Hands Off Cain

ROME, Oct 9 2008 (IPS) - The call for a universal moratorium on executions made by the U.N. General Assembly last year is a landmark. But the ultimate goal of worldwide death penalty abolition could be delayed unless the new General Assembly goes further.

In order to strengthen the resolution politically, "some other urgent steps are needed, and they can be taken now by the General Assembly meeting in New York," says Elisabetta Zamparutti, Italian MP and editor of the annual report on the death penalty by the Rome-based abolitionist organisation Hands Off Cain.

On the eve of the World Day Against the Death Penalty (Oct. 10), Zamparutti told IPS that while the 2007 U.N. resolution has produced numerous positive developments around the globe, "the real work begins now and, if we don't want to dissipate this success, the current New York meeting has to be substantial rather than merely a formal process."

IPS: The U.N. General Assembly is going to return to the death penalty issue. After its moratorium approval, what do you expect from this year's discussion? Elisabetta Zamparutti (EZ): As explicitly stated in the declaration approved last year, the resolution is part of the agenda of the current General Assembly, which is asked to simply reiterate its support for the moratorium. This has to be done annually.

The discussion could be a simple procedural process, confirming the 2007 resolution's contents. Or it could be a debate of substance, even strengthening those contents; this is what we are hoping for.

IPS: How could this happen, concretely? EZ: In two ways. What we are requesting is that this year's resolution includes the elimination of state secrecy surrounding the death penalty. This means that countries must provide the U.N. Secretary-General with all information concerning their death sentences and executions.

We are persuaded that the lack of information available to the public is one of the causes for an increase in the number of executions in some countries. The annual global report released by Hands Off Cain, covering the death penalty situation in 2007 and the first half of 2008, says that 39 out of 49 pro-death penalty countries have dictatorial, authoritarian or repressive regimes. Twenty-one of these are responsible for 99 percent of all executions worldwide in 2007.

Of course, if retentionist states are required to provide information about all those condemned and executed, they would naturally reduce the number of death sentences because they would respond not only to their own people but to international public opinion.

This is something the General Assembly could ask to be included in this year's resolution.

Our second key request is for the appointment of a special envoy to the Secretary-General. This special envoy should have the responsibility of not just monitoring the global death penalty situation but also helping individual countries realise the U.N. call for a moratorium. The envoy would see countries maintain a high degree of transparency about their capital punishment systems.

A very pragmatic role, then, that would help retentionist countries deal with their problems moving towards democracy and the respect for political and civil liberties, not just the abolition of the death penalty.

IPS: Does the Italian government support your requests? EZ: The U.N. Secretary-General has openly recognised the prominent role played by Italy in the abolitionist process. We are now waiting to see if the current government (centre-right government elected in April) wants to continue with this commitment.

The chamber of deputies recently approved a draft law ratifying protocol 13 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties. This concerns the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances. The draft law will now go to the Senate.

The ratification of the protocol was perfectly consistent with the Italian judicial ruling removing the death penalty for military crimes. After Italy's commitment to the U.N. resolution for the universal moratorium, our country now has the moral and political responsibility to strengthen and realise the contents of this resolution.

We have also asked the Italian government to support our requests to the U.N., and we hope to see a concrete reaction to this.

IPS: One condition of last year's resolution was that the U.N. Secretary-General reports annually on the death penalty to the General Assembly. His recent report shows positive worldwide progress after the resolution's approval. What is your view on that? EZ: Hands Off Cain has positively welcomed the report. It essentially confirms that the moratorium has accelerated the abolitionist process.

The U.N. findings substantiate how the adoption of a moratorium is a key step towards the definitive legal abolition of state executions. The U.N. essentially confirms the global trend towards the abolition of capital punishment stated in our 2008 report.

We had pointed out that while the resolution is not binding and the General Assembly in fact cannot impose a moratorium on its member states, the number of countries that have adopted a moratorium is actually growing. And the Secretary-General's report confirms this positive development.

IPS: After the resolution, is the climate of the World Day Against the Death Penalty in some ways different this year? EZ: The World Day celebration is a chance for us to determine what has changed in one year, and what still has to be done. Yes, this year we feel we have a bigger responsibility because the approval of the moratorium on executions has not ended the struggle. We feel like we have signed a contract with the U.N., and we now have to apply its terms. And this is the hardest part of the job.

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