NEW YORK // Campaigners against the death penalty are celebrating a vote in the United Nations that indicates a shift in the position of Arab governments towards state executions. Activists describe Thursday's vote at the UN General Assembly as a "turning point" in Arab attitudes towards the death penalty after several of the region's governments changed their stance.
The draft resolution calling on countries to impose a moratorium on the use of the death penalty saw five Arab League members change their position from rejecting the document last year to abstaining or not voting in last week's poll. "These results are a good step forward, showing progress in the positions of some countries that voted against the resolution last year and abstained this year," said Nizam Assaf, the Amman-based co-ordinator of the Arab Coalition Against the Death Penalty. "We thank the countries that have changed their position and will continue our work convincing leaders that this form of punishment is inhuman."
Algeria voted in favour of the resolution while 10 Arab League members voted against it and 10 abstained. Amnesty International describes this as "a remarkably better result than last year" when Algeria voted in favour, 15 voted against, and five abstained or were absent. Last year, the UAE stood alone as the only Gulf country to abstain from the vote. Last week, it was joined by GCC members Bahrain and Oman as well as countries from across the Arab world.
"I think there is a great deal of debate going on in the Arab world about the death penalty and whether the ultimate punishment should be imposed," said Yvonne Terlingen, the head of Amnesty's UN office. "There are many organisations, lawyers and judges in the Arab world who are seriously debating whether they want to join this global trend towards abolishing the death penalty and we think the vote is extremely encouraging."
According to the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies, the Arab world has the highest proportion of countries with the death penalty still on the law books. Seventy-seven per cent of Arab nations retain the death penalty compared with 37 per cent of countries in the Americas and two per cent in Europe. Saudi Arabia is subject to harsh criticism. Amnesty recorded at least 1,695 executions in the kingdom between 1985 and May 2008, many carried out by public beheading.
Activists from across the Arab world have become increasingly vocal in recent years, staging a series of conferences in a bid to persuade parliamentarians to abolish the death penalty. Groups from across the region met in Egypt in May before signing the Alexandria Declaration, which says Arab judicial systems are "dysfunctional" for working from "ambiguous" legislation that leaves "room for wide interpretation".
Chianyew Lim, an anti-death penalty campaigner for Penal Reform International, said the use of the death penalty was controversial in the Arab world because of its associations with sharia. "We are challenging the application of the death penalty from the perspective of Islamic law," she said. "If you accurately follow Islamic law, then there are only four types of crimes where the death penalty can be used. And for two of these, committing adultery and leaving the religion, the use of the death penalty has widely been rejected."
Modern Arab legal systems impose the death penalty for many hundreds of crimes including drug dealing and offences defined under a rapidly growing body of antiterror legislation, which critics say are not supported by sharia. But the simple association of the death penalty with Islamic principles makes for a divisive debate within the Arab world. When asked to explain the Government's abstention on the vote, Anwar al Barout, chargé d'affaires of the UAE mission to the UN, simply said the issue was "too sensitive" and refused to make additional comment.