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Abolition of the Death Penalty – New ‘De Facto’ Millennium Goal

IPS Correspondents

MADRID, Oct 7 2010 (IPS) - Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced Thursday the creation of an International Commission Against the Death Penalty, whose immediate goal is a global moratorium by 2015, to put an end to what he described as the “horror” of capital punishment.

Eight of the Commission members on the steps of the Moncloa palace.  Credit: Spanish government

Eight of the Commission members on the steps of the Moncloa palace. Credit: Spanish government

The 10-member Commission was formally established Thursday in Madrid, ahead of the World Day Against the Death Penalty, commemorated on Oct. 10. It is presided over by former UNESCO director general Federico Mayor Zaragoza.

Mayor Zaragoza, founder and chairman of the Foundation for a Culture of Peace, called for “the total eradication of this inhumane punishment,” which, he pointed out, is still on the books in 58 countries, although 139 have abolished it in law or practice.

With the creation of the new Commission, abolition of capital punishment becomes a “de facto” ninth Millennium Development Goal (MDG).

The eight MDGs are a series of development and anti-poverty targets adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, with a 2015 deadline.

At the ceremony to launch the Commission, held in the Moncloa Palace, Spain’s seat of government, Rodríguez Zapatero — who played a key role in the creation of the new body — said “the death penalty is not a punishment, it is a horror.”

The abolition of capital punishment, the socialist prime minister said, is a basic premise for the universalisation of human rights.

The Commission — which is made up of an equal number of women and men — is composed of former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato; Ruth Dreifuss, former president of the Swiss Confederation; former Haitian prime minister Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis; former foreign minister of Algeria Mohammed Bedjaoui; and former French justice minister Robert Badinter.

The other members are former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, from Canada; Argentine lawyer and human rights expert Rodolfo Mattarollo; the chairwoman of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, Asma Jahangir; Turkish philosopher Ioanna Kuçuradi; and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who in 2009 added his state to the list of 15 U.S. states to abolish the death penalty.

The chair of the Commission, former UNESCO (U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation) head Mayor Zaragoza, explained that its members would act as an independent task force whose aim is to complement the struggle against capital punishment carried out by organised civil society as well as the U.N. itself.

The immediate objective is to push for a universal moratorium on the death penalty, that would go into force in 2015.

The 14 countries that were the initial signatories of its founding document are Algeria, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, France, Italy, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Mongolia, the Philippines, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey.

The founding charter states that the death penalty violates the right to life and the right to not be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, both of which are recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It also says capital punishment is the ultimate denial of human rights.

The chair of the Commission said other aims are an end to executions in cases in which international law prohibits or explicitly restricts its application – another aspect established by the founding document.

Mayor Zaragoza, who is also chair of the Board of Directors of the Inter Press Service (IPS) international news agency, said that setting 2015 as the target date for the first big goal was not a random decision, and that the 10 members believe it will be another great accomplishment for humanity.

“We are going to intercede to prevent more executions from here on out,” he said, stressing that the intention is for the new mechanism to be “practical and based on concrete objectives.”

The achievement “without delay” of the worldwide moratorium would be a first step towards the total eradication of the death penalty in all regions of the world.

Amnesty International reported that there were at least 714 executions in 2009, most of them in Saudi Arabia, the United States, Iraq and Iran. But the figure does not include the thousands of executions that were likely to have taken place in China, where information on the subject is a state secret.

The London-based rights watchdog said at least 2,000 people were sentenced to death in 56 countries last year.

An element of great concern for the members of the Commission is the move towards reinstatement of the death penalty in some countries, such as Guatemala.

There are currently 19 people on death row in Guatemala, where executions are carried out by lethal injection. However, there has been a de facto moratorium in that Central American country since the last execution in 2000.

Social Democratic President Álvaro Colom announced that he would once again veto a law that would reintroduce the death penalty. On Tuesday, Oct. 5 Congress approved the law, which would give the president the power to decide whether to grant clemency and commute the sentences of death row inmates.

“Social democracy does not support the death penalty,” said the president.

Under the law, the death penalty would be reinstated once Colom’s term ends, in January 2012.

Rodríguez Zapatero urged the Commission to take an immediate interest in the situation in Guatemala.

The prime minister said the members of the Commission are “true masters in the defence of human rights,” and that they bring together a wealth of experience and wisdom.

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