27 June 2002 :
The demise of the death penalty in international law, after it was barred from the international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the International Criminal Court that is about to be instituted, is today a reality.
Hands Off Cain´s 2002 Report on the death penalty worldwide shows that this issue now concerns a minority of countries where the root of the problem lies not so much in the practice of the death penalty but in the lack of democracy and the fundamental principles for the rule of law and guarantees for civil and religious liberties.
In contrast, the prevailing view promoted in the media, by the actions of some abolitionist organisations, and even through the declarations of various European governments, is that the death penalty is a scandalous issue that exists only in the United States.
It is as if no one knows or remembers, and therefore no one does anything, about the fact that today in Iran one can still be stoned for adultery; that Saudi Arabia decapitates homosexuals; that in Iraq 130 prostitutes were decapitated between June 2000 and April 2002 and their heads left on their own doorsteps for several days; that Yemen and Sudan still use crucifixion as a means of execution; that China imposes the death penalty on Christians for distributing Bibles, on adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual movement it has outlawed, and on militant Uighurs it accuses of separatism; that Vietnam subjects Buddhists and the Montagnard ethnic and Christian minority to arrests, imprisonment, torture and execution; and that in North Korea members of clandestine churches are executed for their creed.
Western intellectuals bide their tongue on all of this, or tend to justify such practices on the grounds that, well, everybody knows that such countries are governed by authoritarian regimes, and that their culture and traditions are vastly different from our own. They seem not to realize that this ´cultural relativism´ is a form of acquiescent and dangerous racism. The no global movement consider human rights to be their own exclusive luxury, a luxury only rich Westerners can afford, and which is certainly not extendable to a billion Chinese or a billion Africans and Arabs living under authoritarian or fundamentalist regimes. For the no global movement and the Western intellectuals, these men and women are inferior beings, unripe for democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law. Faceless beings to be abandoned to themselves.
They believe that problem with fundamentalist Islamic regimes lies in the Koran itself, not in the literal, integral translation of a millenary text into penal laws, punishments and provisions to apply to today´s society. Moreover they accept that a religious precept may applied to regulate not only the behaviour of a believer, but must hold true also for non-believers, believers in other religions or for believers in a different kind of religiosity.
I have yet to see demonstrations, sit-ins, marches or boycotts, let alone fully-fledged campaigns, from the militant no global or pacifist movements against the stonings, crucifixions, floggings and female genital mutilations that are frequently carried out in states like Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, China and other countries.
I have seen pacifists demonstrating in the streets of Israel or in front of the headquarters of the Israeli government, but I have never seen them in front of the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, unless they were there to defend it. I have never seen them protest against the death penalty that the Palestinian Authority imposes in summary proceedings where the accused in a matter of hours are indicted, tried, sentenced and executed by firing squad. In front of those courts, inside those courts I have never seen pacifists, I have only seen jubilant crowds shouting "Allah is great".
Clearly there are first class and second class people on death row: the former have a name, a face, a story to tell, a right to defend themselves in court and submit their case to the judgement of a public opinion made up of people who exercise democratic rights, have the right to choose, debate, prevail or temporarily succumb. We know who they are, where they are being held, and on what day they will be executed. These are the inmates on death row in the US. Of the latter we know nothing. They have no name, no face, no story, no hope and not even the dignity of the condemned to death - they are just the damned. The fodder of the death penalty: unnamed, forgotten, desperate villains. They usually populate the death rows of China, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Cuba or Afghanistan. No one raises a finger in their defence. At best, we manage to report not their story, but the mere record of their execution.
In recent years, many voices have been raised against the death penalty, especially when the executioner was "American". On the other hand, few and isolated were the voices when the executioners were Chinese, Afghan, Cuban or Palestinian. Even when people like Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, the living myths of the no global movement, were the ones that personally signed the execution order, no voices were raised in protest. Pacifists never mention these ´living myths´ unless to speak of them (yes, them!) as victims.
There is a way to give a voice, hope and dignity to the forgotten souls of the death penalty: a UN moratorium on executions. A moratorium is not total abolition. But even a moratorium will be difficult to achieve without international mobilization and a non-violent fight in support of the battle to be waged at the UN General Assembly. To win this fight in the UN´s highest organ, the first target must be persuading the European Union to present the proposal to the UN this year and submit it to the vote.
The betrayal at the UN General Assembly in 1999 - when the European Union first presented and then withdrew the resolution on the moratorium - occurred not only because of Europe´s inability and limitations but also because we anti-death penalty activists were unable to ensure a minimum amount of pressure, such as that the Radical Party was able to set in motion successfully in a few weeks of worldwide Satyagraha for the participation of women in the provisional Afghan government.
Today, the re-launching of the campaign for the moratorium at the UN is, unfortunately, only conceived and adequately supported by the Radical Party within the temporal, political and organizational framework of the re-launch of its political struggle in favour of humankind´s right to democracy which is currently under way throughout the world.
When, ten years ago, Hands Off Cain´s founder Mariateresa Di Lascia and the Radical Party, decided to fight against the death penalty in an organized manner, setting targets and time-frames in which to achieve them - first of all a moratorium on executions - many thought we were absolutely mad, insane, over-ambitious utopians. Mariateresa proposed the name of our campaign "Hands Off Cain", translating the Old Testament passage from the Genesis to the letter.
In the Bible versions in circulation ten years ago, the passage still read ´Let no one kill Cain´ but she insisted on ´Hands Off Cain´ that went on to become the official version of the biblical passage with the 1995 Evangelium Vitae, a short while after Mariateresa passed away.
Looking back, in all these years, our campaign for a moratorium had to do battle not so much against the death penalty itself, as against the pessimism, resignation and the Manichean, intolerant visions of fanatics on both sides: abolitionists and supporters of the death penalty. We were told time and time again that in the same way that slavery was abolished and torture banned, so to would the death penalty be abolished. But how long will it take? We have decided to give the process a boost by transforming historical evolution into a political process that aims to achieve an objective in a set timeframe. And for this end we are translating the widespread stand against the death penalty, held by ordinary people as by leaders and public and non-governmental organisations, into international policy and law.
The moratorium on executions through a UN resolution is our hallmark and objective. It distinguishes us from both Amnesty International and the Catholic Church. Amnesty´s campaign and the Church´s new stand against the death penalty - taken by Pope John Paul II and prompted more by our marches to St Peter´s than the will of the Saint Egidio Community - have had and continue to have other terms of reference, other keywords and different timing to ours.
We have taken note of intransigent and hard-line positions: "life is the absolute value", the Pope tells us; the death penalty "violates the right to life" Amnesty insists. Sacrosanct and empty principles, the good intentions of those who have the Absolute as their guiding theme and History or Eternity as their standard of measurement.
It is not so. The sacrosanct and equally vague principle of the "right to life" is hollow if not backed up the "life of right" [ie by an effective body of laws], the will to enforce it, or lacking this, a civil struggle to demand its respect. There can be no right to life without an effective application of the law. And the value of life can be perceived and literally appreciated very often "at the cost" of compromises.
On subjects like abortion, drugs, euthanasia, I often prefer a small step forward through changes in the law leading to their regulation, as opposed to their total prohibition, which in turn paves the way for clandestine abortion, mafia-controlled drug-dealing, and euthanasia administered by family members or by complacent or understanding medical or paramedical staff, who, because of their actions, are condemned to illegality.
Nor can we have a fundamentalist approach to the abolition of the death penalty. And I will go even further though my words may seem tantamount to blasphemy coming from a committed abolitionist. To the declamatory and inconclusive petitio principii against the death penalty, I oppose the certainty and the urgency of small steps towards abolition at legal level.
I think that many are the cases in which people defend themselves from organized crime and homicidal violence by taking justice into their own hands or a state hits back through summary and extrajudicial executions. I do not think that there is a connection between the ban on the death penalty or a legal moratorium on executions in any given country and phenomena of private or rough justice.
If this were so, I would have no doubt as to which system to choose, I would prefer a system based on the laws of a democratic constitutional state even if these include the death penalty. I would fight to conquer new frontiers for democracy, certainty in law and the constraints of law. From this point of view, I am not saying anything new: the law of retaliation is superior to that of the jungle because it is law, a primitive and terrible kind of law but still a law. Let us not forget that the practice of putting people on "trial", even a trial that may deal out capital punishment, arose in response to crime and as an alternative to lynching by popular justice and has surely represented a step forward in terms of law and of guarantees for the accused.
The conquest of a new human right such as the abolition of the death penalty cannot be the fruit of legal prohibition, it cannot be imposed by decree nor can it be the presumptuous lesson in civilization that civilised abolitionists impart upon retentionists that need to be civilised. The proposal itself of a moratorium on the death penalty is certainly a compromise, a compromise with the death penalty, a point of contact, the least common denominator between abolitionists and retentionists: the countries that have abolished it take a step towards those that still foresee it in their laws and practice it, those who maintain it and practice it take a step towards the abolitionists and, although they may continue to maintain it in their codes of law, decide not to put it into practice. It is a creative and effective compromise: experience has taught us that after one, two or three years of moratorium it is unlikely that a state will turn back the clock. Rather one proceeds towards complete abolition as was the case in South Africa and many countries of the former USSR.
Thanks to the Radical Party and Emma Bonino, and for the very first time, in 1994 the Italian government, on its own initiative and against the general consensus, presented a resolution for a global moratorium on executions at the UN General Assembly in New York. The European Union did not support the initiative that it considered over-ambitious. We lost by only eight votes but the effort produced a ripple effect. In the following years and for six times running, the resolution was approved by an absolute majority at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. In the last ten years, about ten countries have renounced the death penalty. This was not the natural evolution of a historical process but the result of a political campaign. There is a direct link between our initiative at the UN and the moratoria on executions and other changes concerning the death penalty that have been taking place throughout the world.