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Q&A: Mobilising Society Against the Death Penalty

Tito Drago interviews FEDERICO MAYOR ZARAGOZA

MADRID, Feb 4 2011 (IPS) - Civil society is more coordinated and stronger at an international level today thanks to the Internet, and cyberspace can play an important role in efforts to eradicate the death penalty, says Federico Mayor Zaragoza.

"The death penalty is the cruellest, most degrading and inhumane punishment," Federico Mayor Zaragoza told IPS. Credit: Wikicommons

"The death penalty is the cruellest, most degrading and inhumane punishment," Federico Mayor Zaragoza told IPS. Credit: Wikicommons

In this interview with IPS, the former director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and current president of the Foundation for a Culture of Peace and of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty discussed what can be done to abolish capital punishment at a global level.

Mayor Zaragoza is also chair of the IPS Board of Directors.

The International Commission Against the Death Penalty, originally the initiative of Spain’s socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, was officially established on Oct. 7, and its first two-day global meeting ended Thursday in Madrid.

Q: Is capital punishment a human rights violation even if it is carried out as part of a judicial decision?

A: It is not simply a violation of human rights, but is the ultimate denial of human rights, because it violates the most important of the universal rights: the right to life.


Q: But what if there is a judicial ruling?

A: First of all, it’s important to remember that on more than one occasion, after death row convicts have been executed, it turned out that they were innocent.

The death penalty is the cruellest, most degrading and inhumane punishment, which at times is applied unfairly and is generally used in a disproportionate, discriminatory and arbitrary manner. We must also keep in mind that even the most abject criminals can repent and be reformed.

Q: If the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims the right of every individual to protection from deprivation of life, in 1948, why hasn’t it enforced a ban on the death penalty?

A: The U.N. can recommend, but it cannot enforce its resolutions.

Q: What explanation is there for the continued application of capital punishment in not only one of the industrialised nations, but the most industrialised nation, the United States?

A: There is no explanation, although we should not overlook the positives steps that are being taken, like President (Barack) Obama’s attempt to persuade the 36 states that maintain the death penalty to at least adopt a moratorium.

And in that country, the most important thing now is to take action in order to raise public awareness on the problem, to keep them from voting again in favour of keeping the death penalty on the books.

Q: And what about China?

A: With respect to that country…we should not look the other way, but should issue a loud international call for it to at least apply a moratorium and stop the killing.

It would be difficult to get China to change its laws immediately, but we should try to get it to suspend executions. Although all executions are worthy of condemnation, in this case we must stress that there are “assembly line executions”: killings of dozens of people who are deprived of a fair trial and the right to a defence.

Q: Can killings of civilian populations by the armed forces be considered a kind of capital punishment, given that many bombings, for instance, are carried out in compliance with orders given by democratically elected governments?

A: No, that isn’t the death penalty; these are murders, state terrorism, and those responsible for them should be tried under both national and international laws.

Q: Until capital punishment is revoked in the countries that still apply it, can steps forward be taken?

A: One thing that should immediately happen is a stop to executions of persons under 18, pregnant women or people with mental disabilities.

In the U.S. state of Virginia, a mentally retarded woman was recently executed. It is inconceivable that this is still happening in a country that claims to defend human rights. Human rights are indivisible; it is not possible to try to uphold some while violating others.

Q: But are there international norms that make it possible to apply the death penalty?

A: It has been clear that this isn’t possible since 1948, when the U.N. approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims the right of every individual to protection from deprivation of life and states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

It is clear that the death penalty not only violates the right to life but is also cruel, inhuman and degrading.

Furthermore, studies carried out by the U.N. in 1988, 1996 and 2002 state that no scientific study has shown that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life sentences.

Q: What immediate objective is sought by the International Commission that you chair?

A: To raise citizen awareness of the issue and get them involved in fighting the death penalty, and to get the 58 countries where it is still applied to abolish it by reforming their laws, with a view to its complete eradication.

Q: What responsibility do reporters and the media have with regard to this issue?

A: As with so many other issues, their responsibility is to broadly inform, in a veracious, accurate and objective manner. But we also have to understand that citizen participation in communication, through cyberspace, is growing day by day. It is very likely that the traditional media will become irrelevant.

Q: And what future do you see for a news agency like IPS (Inter Press Service)?

A: We have to keep in mind that unlike other agencies, IPS does not have a party, a multinational corporation or a state behind it, but is a truly international agency, a non-governmental organisation recognised as such by the U.N., with correspondents of all nationalities, that puts an emphasis on providing veracious, accurate, objective, verifiable information focused on major issues that affect the present and future of society, not trivialities.

 
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