- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

NEW YORK — The senior U.N. human rights official yesterday said she senses a global interest in revising the death penalty, triggered in part by the public execution of former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said she does not expect to see a “spontaneous uprising or outcry” against capital punishment, but she does perceive a willingness among governments to consider restricting the death penalty — or at least opening up the opaque process.

“I sense that this year there is an opportunity to move towards abolition in some countries, moratorium in others and transparency in some which still surround the application of the death penalty with secrecy,” Mrs. Arbour told reporters here yesterday.

“The call for abolition is rarely the result of a spontaneous enlightenment. It is usually triggered by an event in countries that have the courage to face their own shortcomings,” she said. “This event is sometimes a demonstrated wrongful conviction.”

The executions in Iraq of Saddam and two of his associates “may have created an environment in which people are asking a lot of serious questions” about the need for a review of capital punishment, she said.

Saddam was hanged in December. Shouting and jeering by Shi’ites at the execution, which was caught on a cell-phone camera, drew condemnation from President Bush and other world leaders. When Saddam’s half brother Barazan Ibrahim was hanged in January, his head was severed.

Mrs. Arbour was pragmatic on whether her agency could make inroads in the United States, where capital punishment is administered by states and appears to have popular support.

She indicated that she would not be bringing up the matter with the U.S. government or courts the same way her office does in other, more receptive countries.

“If the courts are willing to listen to us, we are not going to shy away,” Mrs. Arbour said. “It depends on our own capacity to make a contribution in a case where the advocacy of international standards are not likely to be advanced by others.”

Mrs. Arbour, a former Canadian justice and a prosecutor for the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, is a tough-minded and plain-spoken advocate for what she sees as basic human rights.

The official U.N. position is that it respects the domestic laws of member states. However, Mrs. Arbour and others in the human rights sphere say that all people have the right to life, a de facto repudiation of capital punishment.

The Web site of the U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, notes, in part: “Given that the loss of life is irreparable, the Special Rapporteur … emphasizes that the abolition of capital punishment is most desirable in order fully to respect the right to life. He also wishes to mention that, while there is a fundamental right to life, there is no such right to capital punishment.”

According to Amnesty International, 88 nations and territories have explicitly outlawed the death penalty, while 69 permit capital punishment for crimes of varying degrees of severity from rape to treason.

The European Union has shelved capital punishment, while the United States, Iran, Iraq, China and South Korea are among those that impose it.

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