Death Penalty Threatens to Split World Body
By Thalif Deen, UN Bureau Chief, Inter Press Service
United Nations, 01 November, (IPS) The 192-member U.N. General Assembly is expected to vote, perhaps by early or mid-November, on one of the most divisive political issues before the world body: a moratorium on the death penalty.
The 27-member European Union (EU), backed by virtually every single major international human rights organisation, will introduce a draft resolution on the death penalty which is expected to split the General Assembly right down the middle.
The EU is confident it will have a majority on its side of the aisle -- perhaps helping adopt the resolution, which is not legally binding, by a narrow margin.
But there is also strong opposition to the resolution by the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), the League of Arab States, and also by China and some of the Caribbean and Asian countries, where capital punishment is still in statute books.
Singapore, which has been a consistently vocal proponent of the death penalty, thinks the EU resolution will be "divisive."
Ambassador Vanu Gopala Menon of Singapore says that when the EU tables the draft resolution, it will be resisted by many countries which have the death penalty on their statutes and which are of the view that this is not a human rights issue but one dealing with law and order.
"Under these circumstances, it is best for the EU not to try to push ahead with their draft," Menon told IPS.
He argued such a resolution will only "sour the atmosphere" in the Third Committee (which will discuss and vote on the resolution before it goes to the General Assembly) and "cause unnecessary divisiveness in the house."
"It is not clear to me what the EU hopes to gain with this resolution. It may give them a sense of moral satisfaction but it is not going to change the positions of countries that maintain that the death penalty serves to deter serious crimes," he added. "This attempt by the EU to impose its values will also be seen in a very poor light by many countries," Menon warned.
An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS that the draft is being "co-authored" by 36 member states, including the 27 EU members. But the number of countries "co-sponsoring" the draft resolution, he said, would be around 70.
Asked if the EU is confident of obtaining a majority among the 192 member states, he said "it is hard to predict" because the draft is still being discussed and is yet to be finalized.
An Arab diplomat, who is opposed to the EU resolution, said he had heard that some of the non-EU states are "not very comfortable" with the existing draft and have asked for amendments, thereby delaying the tabling of the resolution.
But within the EU, there is a split as to whether it should accommodate some of the amendments proposed by non-EU sponsors.
"There are also rumors of arm-twisting and cheque-book diplomacy to win support for the resolution from developing nations," the Middle Eastern diplomat said.
Since the draft is still being debated, the EU has not officially released it, leading to further speculation.
Addressing the conference on "Europe Against the Death Penalty" in Lisbon in early October, the European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso laid down the official line: "The European Union is unreservedly opposed to the use of capital punishment under all circumstances and has consistently called for the worldwide abolition of this punishment."
"The death penalty is against human dignity. We want to give visibility to the efforts of the many non-governmental organizations and individuals who strive, day after day, towards the abolition of the death penalty," he added.
According to the EU, a growing number of countries are abolishing the death penalty: 133 countries have done so in practice or in law.
The European Commission also admits it has funded around 30 anti-death penalty projects worldwide since 1994, with an overall budget of about 15 million euros.
In a pre-emptive strike -- and before the draft resolution is to be introduced in the Third Committee -- Ambassador Menon of Singapore set the ball rolling Tuesday when he raised the issue of death penalty during a discussion on "promotion and protection of human rights."
"My delegation is extremely disappointed, but hardly surprised, that the European Union has once again decided to introduce a resolution on the death penalty."
He said delegations will recall that the last time the EU tried to foist such a resolution on the Committee was in 1999.
"Delegations may also recall how divisive this experience was. The sponsors of this draft resolution are certainly entitled to their views on the death penalty," Menon added.
Singapore understands and respects the position of countries which oppose the death penalty as a matter of principle, he added.
"That is their prerogative. It appears, however, that these countries are incapable of extending the same courtesy to countries that have chosen to retain the death penalty".
He said: "My delegation would like to remind this committee that capital punishment is not prohibited under international law. Yet it is clear that the sponsors of this draft resolution have decided that there can only be one view on capital punishment, and that only one set of choices should be respected."
For a large number of countries, including Singapore, the application of the death penalty is first and foremost a criminal justice issue, not a human rights issue, he argued.
"It is an important component of the administration of law and our justice system, and is imposed only for the most serious crimes and serves as a deterrent. We have proper legal safeguards in place to prevent any miscarriage of justice."
"Every state has the sovereign right to choose its own political, economic, social and legal systems based on what is in their own best interests," he said.
- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -