The global shift against the death penalty

Last week's UN vote for a moratorium on the death penalty is a welcome step.

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Next year the world will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. The intense discussions preceding the adoption of the 1948 declaration exposed the divide between nations that favored the death penalty and those that opposed it.

In the minority then, opponents failed to add the death penalty to the violations of human rights listed in the final text of the declaration. Since 1948, however, the ranks of the opposition have grown – and so have their efforts to end the ultimate punishment.

Last Tuesday marked a major milestone in this effort, when the United Nations General Assembly approved a nonbinding global moratorium on the death penalty. This resolution failed repeatedly in past years, so it was heartening to see 104 nations affirm its value.

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The debate on the death penalty has raged since ancient Greece. Believing in the proportionality between crime and punishment, Plato favored the death penalty for individuals who committed crimes against their parents and in all cases of intentional murder. Centuries later, philosophers Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel also asserted the merits of the death penalty. On the opposing side, 18th-century Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria believed the death penalty was neither useful nor necessary: The certainty, rather than the cruelty, of the punishment was what counted most.

Today, those who hold fast to the death penalty – the retentionists – regard it from a moral standpoint as a "just" punishment. They also see it as a useful deterrent to protect the "common good" – society's overall security.

Those against – the abolitionists – argue that the death penalty does not help to deter crime, contending that there is no objective evidence to support the claim that the death penalty reduces crime. Moreover, they say, it violates the mother of all human rights: the right to life. Last but not least, it might lead, in some cases, to executions of individuals who are wrongfully convicted.

These are the very reasons why Italy belongs to the camp of the abolitionists.

The rapidly changing international context demands that we take a fresh look at the death-penalty debate. Three factors are particularly relevant: the effect of the death penalty on the war on terror; the new role of transnational justice; and the strength of transnational civil society.

Recent experience indicates that the death penalty is certainly not a valid remedy against terrorism. The threat of capital punishment is clearly not sufficient to deter extremists who are ready to blow themselves up to pursue their objectives.

Second, the UN criminal tribunals on former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court, have excluded the death penalty from their statutes. This creates an odd asymmetry: It means that individuals guilty of the highest form of crime – crime against humanity – are not punishable with the death penalty, whereas those who have committed crimes that are horrendous but more circumscribed (not against humanity) can be sentenced to death.

Third, the voice against the death penalty raised by citizens around the world has greatly aided the cause of abolition. This voice cannot be ignored. The trends are encouraging. According to Amnesty International, two-thirds of all nations have now abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. And more than 45 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes since 1990.

Italy, along with the European Union, was proud to lead the effort that led to last week's successful resolution. It's important to note that this moratorium does not interfere with domestic legislation. It only asks retentionist states to suspend its application. The moratorium also allows for a "pause for reflection." This is a widely felt need. And not only in Europe.

It is significant that the resolution was also supported by new African democracies, such as Gabon and South Africa, not to mention Rwanda, which suffered a tragic genocide during the 1994 civil war.

The affirmation of this resolution by the United Nations opens a window of opportunity for a broader and civilized debate about the death penalty. It's a debate that should move from a simple and common objective: making our world a more human place.

• Massimo D'Alema is Italy's deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs.

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