UN panel votes for death penalty moratorium
By Claudia Parsons
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A U.N. committee voted on Thursday in favor of a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in a key step toward the passing of the nonbinding motion by the world body.
Opponents had tried to derail the resolution in the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee by inserting amendments on the right to life of unborn children.
More than 15 amendments were voted down in two days of acrimonious debate that touched on whether the death penalty was a human rights issue or a domestic matter. Some Caribbean and other countries accused the European Union, a key backer of the text, of seeking to impose its values on other nations.
The resolution, which calls for "a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty," was passed 99-52 with 33 abstentions. It is likely to go to the full 192-member assembly in mid-December where supporters say they expect few countries to change their position.
"It's a question of coherence -- a country that votes in a certain way here will do so there," Italian Ambassador Marcello Spatafora told Reuters shortly before the vote.
Eighty-seven countries -- including the 27 EU states, more than a dozen Latin American countries and eight African states -- jointly introduced the draft resolution, though opponents singled out the EU as the driving force.
Two similar moves in the 1990s failed in the assembly. This time, the text of the resolution stops short of an outright demand for immediate abolition.
Vanu Gopala Menon, ambassador of Singapore which has a mandatory death penalty for most drug offenses, accused those who brought the resolution to the committee of being "sanctimonious, hypocritical and intolerant."
Barbados was among the most vocal in complaining that "a group of countries" was trying to impose its will, saying it had been threatened with the withdrawal of aid over the issue.
Human rights organization Amnesty International welcomed the vote as a "historic resolution and a major step towards the abolition of the death penalty worldwide."
"Although the resolution is not legally binding on states, it carries considerable moral and political weight," Amnesty International said in a statement.
China, Iran, Iraq, the United States, Pakistan and Sudan account for about 90 percent of all executions worldwide.
According to Amnesty, 133 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice -- a statistic that opponents of the resolution contested. They said more than 100 countries retained capital punishment on their statutes, even if they did not all use it.
Botswana's representative Rhee Hetanang said the death penalty was a domestic criminal justice issue. "No amount of intimidation and bullying will cause us to go against the expressed wish of the people of Botswana," he said.
Egypt and Iran were among countries proposing a last-minute amendment that would have urged member states "to take all necessary measures to protect the lives of unborn children."
The United States, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe were among the countries voting for that amendment. It was rejected 83-28 with 47 abstentions.
"We are in agreement with the view expressed in this amendment that the lives of the unborn deserve the strongest protection, and we agree that countries that advocate for the abolition of the death penalty should be at least equally scrupulous in showing concern for innocent life," U.S. representative Joseph Rees said.
The United States abstained in a vote on a more strongly worded amendment that would have said abortion was only admissible in necessary cases, "in particular where the life of the mother and or the child is at serious risk."