Although not legally binding, the adoption of the resolution by the main decision-making body of the UN in the presence of all Member States lends it significant moral and political importance. The resolution, which strengthens the UN’s abolitionist stance, beseeches retentionist Member States to observe international norms, to guarantee the rights of those punishable by the death penalty, to reduce the number of offences which receive the death penalty, and to suspend executions.
From a more strategic point of view, the adoption of the resolution acts as a benchmark against which the development of each country’s stance on this crucial human rights issue can be judged.
Increasingly Encouraging Results
The voting of the first resolution (62/149) by the UN General Assembly in 2007 took place in the favourable political context. With two thirds of countries having abolished the death penalty or ceased its application, the number of executions was reducing year on year marking the start of a true abolitionist trend. The moment had come to encourage a majority of states to recognise the death penalty as “an assault on human dignity” by asking “all retentionist states to instigate a moratorium on executions”. 18 December 2007 saw the adoption of the first resolution by 104 votes to 54 with 29 abstentions.
The first resolution sparked an ever growing wave of support for a universal moratorium. 2008 saw 106 votes for, 46 against and 34 abstentions. 2009 saw 109 votes for, 41 against and 35 abstentions. 2012 saw 111 votes for, 41 against and 34 abstentions. The 2012 vote saw the Central African Republic, Chad, Benin, South Sudan and Tunisia voting against for the first time and positive moves from opposition to abstention for Afghanistan, Indonesia and Papua New-Guinea.
It remains to be seen whether this December’s results will follow this encouraging trend or bring it to an abrupt end. The possibility of a setback cannot be excluded. The 2010 to 2012 period saw Bahrein, Oman and Dominica move from abstention to voting against, whilst former yes voters Namibia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka became abstainers. Progress cannot, therefore, be taken for granted.
In their bid to convince opposing states, Together Against the Death Penalty and its partners have undertaken a proactive lobbying campaign centred around national delegations in New York. In the run up to the next vote, key countries fall into two main categories. Firstly, the 27 de jure or de facto abolitionist countries who, in 2012, chose to abstain or vote against must be convinced to vote in accordance with their own legal practices. Secondly, the 19 retentionist countries who abstained or voted in favour must be encourage to sustain this stance even if it contradicts their country’s criminal law.
The stance of many countries is far from set in stone and is subject to change overnight. In 2012, the period between the preparatory vote of 19 November at the 3rd Committee of the UN General Assembly and the final plenary session vote on the 20 December saw Mauritania move from voting against to abstention and Sierra Leone from abstention to voting in favour. Chad and Somalia both voted in favour despite being absent at the preparatory vote.
There exists, therefore, real room for manoeuver, however small, in which votes can be swung. This opportunity must be seized. Now.
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