The UN in full session is like a huge oil tanker, ploughing through high seas and storms, only slowly adapting its great momentum to change course. Such a momentous change was the adoption of a resolution on 18th December last to suspend the death penalty world wide. The UN General Assembly was born out of the terrible experience of two world wars, the slaughter of millions, and the questioning of what had been thought to be a state of civilisation. Sixty years ago the UN proclaimed what we would now call a road map, ‘the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ a document of great simplicity but immense compass. Over those sixty years there has been some progress in achieving its aim of freedom and security, although progress in one area or place is often accompanied by regression elsewhere; war, famine, disease, senseless killing and cruelty remain the still, sad music of humanity.
But there has been progress in achieving the most fundamental of all its promises. The passing of a resolution on a moratorium on the death penalty, acknowledges that the words ‘Everyone has the right to life’ in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration, is now an achievable goal. Yet, the resolution limits itself to an expression of ‘deep concern’, asking that the death penalty be progressively restricted and the number of offences for which it may be imposed reduced. Such language of compromise and persuasion prevails, but the original strong mind of the Universal Declaration also rings out, ‘Establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty’. It is known that the formulation ‘Everyone has a right to life’ were the most contested words of the Declaration. While some wished to extend the words to outright prohibition of the death penalty, others wanted the legitimacy of the death penalty to be explicitly sustained. What we inherit is an incomplete phrase, whose meaning the resolution of 18th December has now further revealed.
Twice before, such a motion was introduced to the UN, but failed to reach a vote in the General Assembly. On this occasion, despite strong opposition, the motion advanced and the final vote tallied a majority of 104 votes in favour, 54 against, and 29 abstentions. The most heartening aspect of the vote was that 20 states that still have the death penalty voted in favour of the resolution. The stand of those opposing the motion is revealing. The
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