On Jan. 3, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour made an unusual public appeal to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani asking him to spare the lives of two former colleagues of Saddam Hussein who are due to be executed later this week. The two officials, Awad Hamad al-Bandar and Barzan Ibrahim al-Hassan, were co-defendants of the former Iraqi president who was executed last Saturday.
"The concerns I expressed just days ago with respect to the fairness and impartiality of Saddam Hussein's trial apply also to these two defendants," Arbour said.
"I have therefore today directly appealed to the president of the Republic of Iraq to refrain from carrying out these sentences," she added.
Arbour also pointed out that international law, as it currently stands, only allows the imposition of the death penalty as an exceptional measure within rigorous legal constraints.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was ambiguous on the issue of the death penalty when he responded to questions from reporters Tuesday, said he "fully endorsed" Arbour's call for restraint.
UN spokesperson Michele Montas told reporters Wednesday that the secretary-general "is of course aware of the ongoing debate concerning a total ban of the death penalty."
"Until the matter is resolved, he respects the right of member states to have their own positions on it," she said.
However, she added, the secretary-general strongly believes in the wisdom of Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person."
Last Friday, Arbour issued a statement critical of the Saddam Hussein trial and the trial of two of his colleagues.
The chaotic scene preceding his execution -- including taunting by his executioners -- has also prompted protests worldwide.
She said that under international treaties that Iraq had signed, Hussein had the right to appeal to the appropriate authorities for consideration of commutation or pardon.
"There were a number of concerns as to the fairness of the original trial, and there needs to be assurance that these issues have been comprehensively addressed," she said.
"I call therefore on the Iraqi authorities not to act precipitately in seeking to execute the sentence in these cases," Arbour said Friday, less than 48 hours before Hussein was executed. She pointed out that international law proscribes the imposition of the death sentence after an unfair trial.
"All sections of Iraqi society, as well as the wider international community, have an interest in ensuring that a death sentence provided for in Iraqi law is only imposed following a trial and appeal process that is, and is legitimately seen as, fair, credible and impartial."
That is especially so in a case as exceptional as this one, she added.
The death penalty issue was discussed at the United Nations both in 1999 and 2000 but was shelved without a decision. Since then, it has become one of the most politically divisive issues in the world body.
The European Union (EU), supported by several African and Latin American countries, is a strong advocate of abolishing capital punishment. The United States, backed by several Asian and Islamic countries, supports the death penalty.
On Tuesday, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema was quoted as saying: "I believe this must constitute one of the top commitments of our international efforts because it us urgent to have an initiative to put an end to the barbarism of the death penalty."
Ambassador Vanu Gopal Menon of Singapore, whose country played a leading role in the campaign for the death penalty, said that although some countries persist in trying to impose their views, the reality is that there is no international consensus on whether the death penalty is a violation of human rights.
"Indeed, a large group of countries have always disassociated themselves from resolutions calling for a moratorium on or the abolition of the death penalty," he told IPS.
In fact, said Menon, at the 61st Session of the Commission on Human Rights, held in Geneva in March-April 2005, 66 countries signed a Joint Statement of Disassociation making it clear that they did not support the resolution tabled by the European Union and some others calling for a moratorium on or abolition of the death penalty.
"For a large number of countries, the death penalty is a criminal justice issue. It is imposed for the most serious crimes and serves as a deterrent to would be offenders," Menon said.
Singapore's position is very simple. Every country has the sovereign right to decide on its own criminal justice system. Whether to maintain or abolish the death penalty is a question of national choice, he added.
And each society has to judge what is best for its people according to its unique circumstances. Respect for human rights must include respect for differences in systems and practices. Singapore respects the rights of others to decide on their own systems..
"We do not seek to impose our views. All we ask is for the same treatment, the same respect, to be extended to us," he said.
Montas said the secretary-general is aware of the ongoing debate in the General Assembly concerning a total ban of the death penalty. Until the matter is resolved, he respects the right of member states to have their own positions on it.
Montas also said that in one recent vote, a majority of member states did not agree to condemn the death penalty.
At the same time, she added, the secretary-general stressed the need to work to abolish the death penalty, although he is aware that member states differ on the issue.
Asked about the proposal for a moratorium on the death penalty, Montas said "the matter was the prerogative of the General Assembly, and the secretary-general would push forward whatever the Assembly agreed to on that matter."
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Albion Monitor December
31, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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