CAMPAIGNERS at the three-day World Conference Against the Death Penalty, which continued on Thursday, see light at the end of the tunnel in their drive to rid the planet of capital punishment.
About 140 countries, two thirds of the United Nations, have now abolished or suspended executions including some 93 that have abolished it outright, officials and campaigners said.
That compares to only 50 or so some two decades ago.
“Today we are at a crucial stage with the death penalty, a real turning point,” said Gry Larsen, Norway’s deputy foreign minister.
“We are in fact winning the international debate,” she told the Congress.
One UN official even argued that on current trends the death penalty would be eradicated by 2025.
Others, however, preferred to stress the work still to be done.
“If you carry on this fight in a country, sometimes the road is long and dark and lonely,” said Helen Prejean, whose support for death row inmates in the United States inspired the movie Dead Man Walking.
Prejean, a Roman Catholic sister from Louisiana, said a foreign-generated spotlight on the “secret ritual” of executions in the south could sway popular support for capital punishment.
“It’s a not a deeply held commitment at all. It’s very much a surface response which politicians tap into,” she remarked.
The United States executed 52 prisoners last year.
China tops the global list: according to Amnesty International, it executed at least 1,700 people in 2008. Other countries at the top of the list were Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.
According to most accounts, many of the remaining 53 countries still allowing capital punishment represented a hard core that would be difficult to win over.
Iranian Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi said a campaigner in Iran had been stopped from coming to the triennial gathering of abolitionists, which opened in Geneva on Wednesday.
“I regret to say that executions and the death penalty are part of my country’s identity,” she told journalists. But most Iranians were against capital punishment, especially stonings, she insisted.
“The only condition needed to reach abolition in Iran is democracy,” Ebadi added.
UN special rapporteur on arbitrary executions Phillip Alston, who has repeatedly singled out Iran over executions of juvenile offenders, said Tehran had little in the way of qualms.
Another speaker singled out Asian countries, notably China, Singapore and Japan, despite a declining numbers of executions.
“There are a lot of people in Southeast Asia; it’s a very dynamic region of the world,” said Danthong Breen, head of Thai group Union for Civil Liberty.
“Yet probably as a region they’re the most closed to the abolition campaign.”
Countries maintain the death penalty for a variety of offences, ranging from the most violent crimes down to drugs possession, bribery, to a repeat conviction on alcohol offences.
They say it is an essential deterrent, a claim disputed by the abolitionists, who also argue that wrongful convictions are too frequent, pointing out that this supreme penalty is irreversible.
In some cases, they argue capital punishment is used as an instrument for political repression or tainted by ethnic, racial or social discrimination.
And some executions are carried out in a particularly inhumane manner, they add.
“The racial element in the United States is very clear,” Alston remarked.
The UN expert also cited another case he had come across, in another country, where an inmate was awaiting execution for sodomy.
Alston stressed that the campaign should also seek incremental progress such as restricting the scope of capital offences.
Recent supreme court rulings in China restricting the discretionary powers of local courts had cut executions by nearly one third according to campaigners, he said.
“There is a strong movement in China,” acknowledged Alston.
And in the United States too, while 35 states maintained the death penalty on their statutes, only 11 had actually used it last year. One state, New Mexico, even abolished it.
Bianca Jagger, a long-standing campaigner on the issue, appealed to President Barack Obama.
“I know the US president cannot abolish the death penalty because it’s a matter for states, but he can call for a moratorium on the federal death penalty.”