(GENEVA, April, 21, 2004) - The top United Nations human rights body on Wednesday urged governments worldwide to declare a moratorium on executions. In a 29-19 vote, the U.N. Human Rights Commission backed a resolution submitted by European countries that called for the global suspension of the death penalty as the first step to eliminating its use.
The United States, Japan, China, India and Muslim nations including Saudi Arabia opposed the resolution. Burkina Faso, Cuba, Guatemala, South Korea and Sri Lanka abstained.
"This position is rooted in our belief in the dignity of all human beings," said Irish Ambassador Mary Whelan, speaking for the 15-nation European Union. The EU drew support from Latin American countries on the 53-nation commission.
"In some countries, the death penalty is often imposed after trials which do not conform to international standards of fairness," the resolution said.
It did not identify any nation by name but said minorities often are disproportionately subjected to capital punishment.
Countries should remove the death penalty from their laws if they no longer apply it, and those that still carry out executions should restrict the number of offenses for which the death penalty may be imposed, the resolution said.
Justice officials should refuse to extradite individuals who may face execution in another country, unless they receive assurances that capital punishment will not be carried out, it said.
The European death penalty resolution is submitted - and passed - annually at the commission's six-week meeting. The U.N. body's decisions are not binding on member governments.
U.S. delegation member Jeffrey Delaurentis reiterated Washington's opposition to the EU resolution.
"Each nation should decide for itself through democratic processes whether its domestic law should permit capital punishment in accordance with international law," he told the commission.
"In the United States, there is public debate on the use of capital punishment, but the American public is of one mind that when the death penalty is used, due process must be rigorously observed by all governmental bodies, at all governmental levels."
On Monday, addressing the commission, former Illinois Governor George Ryan called for a global execution moratorium.
"In the name of human rights, morality and mercy, I ask, 'Why not stop the machinery of death to study its accuracy, its fairness and its faults?"' said Ryan, who is honorary chairman of the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain.
A former death penalty advocate, Ryan commuted the sentences of all 167 men on death row in Illinois last year because he was concerned about the number of people sentenced to death and later found to be innocent. Ryan, a Republican, served as Illinois' chief executive from 1999 to 2003.
A study by Hands Off Cain said 129 of 191 U.N. member countries either have abolished the death penalty or have carried out no executions in the past decade. Some 62 nations - most of them undemocratic - still use capital punishment.
A separate report by the human rights group Amnesty International found that 1,146 people were executed in 28 countries in 2003, with China, Iran and the United States topping the list of nations that use the death penalty.
© MMIV The Associated Press