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Lethal injection
Europe became the first continent to abolish the death penaltyImage: BilderBox

A question of human rights

February 24, 2010

More than 1,000 human rights activists from over 100 countries have gathered in Geneva for the world congress against the death penalty. They can look back on a long history of the struggle for its abolition.


For 200 years now the international movement for the universal abolition of the death penalty has been spearheaded by Italy. With the start of the congress, Laura Mirachian, Italian Ambassador to the United Nations, underlined the special role of her country in the fight against the death penalty. "We have a long tradition of rejecting the death penalty. This is deeply rooted in our culture,” she told Deutsche Welle. “It goes back as far as the 18th century. Tuscany was the first state to abolish the death penalty in 1786 during the war.”

Declaration of Human Rights laid groundwork

UN General Assembly in New York
The UN have been crucial to the fight for abolishing the death penaltyImage: AP

However, it took the modern Italy until 1948 to actually abolish it. In the same year, the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” adopted by the UN General Assembly laid the legal groundwork for the fight against the death penalty. Although the abolition is not explicitly mentioned, Article 3 guarantees the right to life free from inhumane or humiliating punishment.

Yet, in the first 20 years of the declaration, only the newly founded Federal Republic of Germany rejected the death penalty in 1949. Not until the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966 did the UN ask its member states to abolish the death penalty or at least restrict it to very serious crimes.

"Dramatic shift since 1980"

This was a first, albeit only a perfunctionary breakthrough. Until then the death penalty was the unchallenged international norm, says Mario Morazzitti, speaker of the Italian religious group Sankt Egidio. “Until the 1970s only 23 nations abolished the death penalty.” But since 1980 Morazzitti identifies among the 192 member states a clear trend away from the death penalty. “During the last 30 years, there has been a dramatic shift. Europe became the first continent in the world where there was no death penalty.”

Driven by Italy, the European states wanted to extend the ban to the rest of the world: First through the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva and then the General Assembly in New York. The European efforts failed however, when not only the US and China but also many former European colonies in Africa and Asia refused to accept their anti-death-penalty resolution in 1998. “This was due to a strong opposition, who saw the resolution as a neo-colonial interpretation of human rights interfering in the states' internal affairs,” says Morazzitti.

The gurney used to restrain condemned prisoners during the lethal injection process is shown in the Texas death house
The US are still among the countries with the most executions, many by lethal injectionImage: AP

56 states and territories hold on to death penalty

For the first time in 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution demanding the abolition of the death penalty. The resolution states clearly that the imposition and execution of the death penalty is not part of the internal affairs of a particular state and its law but a question of universal human rights.

Over 140 states have in the meantime stopped imposing the death penalty. The majority of them have abolished it by law for all crimes without exception not only in times of peace but also during war. However, 56 states and territories still hold on to the death penalty. Last year, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and the US carried out the most death penalties in the world.

Hope for new UN resolution later this year

Activists at the 4th world congress in Geneva hope to achieve a moratorium on the imposition and execution of the death penalty in those 56 states and territories and push them further toward complete abolition. This goal is to be reinforced by a new resolution in the General Assembly later this year. Activists hope that this time the majority for the resolution will be bigger than in 2007 and that the US and China will not vote against it but abstain from their vote.

Author: Andreas Zumach / Jan Bruck
Editor: Robert Mudge

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