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ROME, Sep 21 2011 (IPS) - The approval by the UN General Assembly in December 2007 of the Resolution for a Universal Moratorium against Capital Punishment was a fundamental step forward not only for the anti-death penalty campaign but also for the affirmation of the rule of law and of those natural rights historically won and often written into national law but not always respected.

After the vote the usual practitioners of realpolitik tried to diminish its import, saying if would serve no purpose. It is true that the UN cannot force any member country to abolish the death penalty, but the moral force and political message sent by the resolution are undeniable. For the first time ever, the United Nations established that capital punishment is a matter of individual rights and not simply an internal question for national judicial systems. It also sent the message that the elimination of capital punishment would constitute a significant advance for the system of human rights.

Since the vote, it has had concrete effects in many countries, as documented in the latest report by Hands off Cain.

The legal abolition of the death penalty in recent years in many states of the US -which saw a drop in executions from 52 in 2009 to 46 in 2010-, the reduction that is apparently occurring in China, the reduction in the number of capital offenses in China and Vietnam, and the thousands of death sentences commuted in Pakistan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Burma are not insignificant developments. While they cannot be seen as prelude to the immediate abolition of the death penalty, they are a clear indication that the world is moving in the direction urged by the United Nations.

Also significant is the abolition of the sanction in recent years in Africa and particularly countries like Rwanda and Burundi, symbols of a continent that has been battred more than any other in recent history by human tragedy: genocide, mutilation, mass rape, summary executions, and deportation.

The arrest warrant issued in 2009 by the International Criminal Court for Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir for the massacres in Darfur was a judiciary prelude to the political development that would soon occur in many Arab countries and others: the end of the myth of the invincibility of dictators who had ruled for decades.

In January after 23 years of dictatorial rule, Ben Ali left Tunisia and the interim national unity government announced the ratification of the most important international treaties, including the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court and the abolition of the death penalty.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak risks falling victim to the death penalty that he himself, during his three decades of uninterrupted rule, extended to forty crimes. Ali Abdalla Saleh in Yemen and Bashar al- Assad in Syria are still resisting but at the price of a war they have chosen to launch against their own peoples.

Muammar Ghaddafi received an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity issued by the International Criminal Court. In Morocco after the huge anti-establishment protests in February, King Mohammed decided grant the release of 92 political prisoners and commute the death sentences of five others and to transform the absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy. In Jordan, the death penalty has not been implemented since 2006, which suggests that the monarchy is headed towards abolition. In Lebanon a de facto moratorium has been in place since 2004. Djibouti constitutionally abolished its death penalty

Last December, these and other Arab countries, including Bahrain, the Arab Emirates, Mauritania, and Oman, which all abstained from the first vote, did not oppose the new resolution on abolition that was approved by the UN. Algeria not only voted for it but was one of the co-sponsors.

To uproot once and for all this aberrant and contradictory principle that life must be defended by inflicting death, the countries that supported the UN moratorium must insure that it is respected in all circumstances.

But it isn’t all good news: the Hands Off Cain report shows that Iran, which has consistently finished among the world’s top executioners, kicked off the new year with an orgy of executions. In North Korea public executions tripled in recent years. In Iraq, even under the “democratic” government of Nouri al-Maliki, the pace of executions has continued uninterrupted.

In China as in Iran, and North Korea as in Iraq, it will be the “parallel democracy” by the Radical Party that will have to compensate for the lack of an official presence on the part of the so-called liberal, civil, abolitionist world. In fact it was Radical Party leader Marco Pannella who, after the announcement that former Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz was condemned to death, staged a hunger strike to obtain “a moratorium against capital punishment for Tariq Aziz as well”, partly to break the tragic continuity with the sanction’s vogue under Saddam Hussein but also to preserve a key witness for the reconstruction of the historical record and the responsibility of the regime up until the war -a war that, it is now clear and amply documented, was set in motion by Bush and Blair precisely to prevent peace and the realisation of our plan of bringing about a free Iraq through the exile of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a fiduciary UN administration. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Emma Bonino, Vice president of the Italian Senate, is a leader of the Radical Party..

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