The 2015 target to establish a universal moratorium on executions -- proposed by the Spanish Prime Minister at the Fourth World Congress against the Death Penalty held recently in Geneva -- is likely to revive momentum on the 2007 non-binding resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly to evolve a realistic strategy to discourage states from enforcing the ultimate sentence. Many promising developments in the principal retentionist countries, evidence of high cost of specialised expertise needed to handle death penalty cases, and the expensive business of maintaining the death row population as compared to imprisoning convicts for life -- not to mention the grave risk of miscarriage of justice — add moral weight and urgency to the case for halting executions forthwith. In 2008, New Jersey abolished the death penalty to become the 13{+t}{+h} State in the U.S. to do so. This and the decision elsewhere to defer carrying out the death sentences as well as the serious debate in the U.S. Supreme Court over lethal injection as a humane answer to the cruel nature of execution are some of the welcome developments. The triennial World Congress, which brings together civil society groups, human rights networks, and senior representatives from governments, has called upon states that already enforce a moratorium to delete this penalty from the statute and has urged countries where it is no longer legal to hand down death sentences to advocate complete abolition in their international relations. It is indeed significant that, while Russia and Ukraine have in place a moratorium on executions, the other 45 member states of the Council of Europe (the human rights body) encompassing the 27 states of the European Union, have legally abolished the death sentence.

In a striking departure from domestic policy, the Supreme People's Court in the People's Republic of China issued guidelines last week requiring judges to impose the harshest sentence only in extreme instances and to temper justice with mercy. It is also a response to the popular demand for a more fair and discriminating system. The recent measures are a sequel to the 2009 decision to phase out executions by firing squads and instead resort to lethal injections. It is apparent that the moral pressure brought to bear upon states through diplomatic means is far more effective than the hollow discourses on democracy. The road to the universal abolition of the death penalty may be long and uncertain, but the most recent trends towards either abolition or moratorium are certainly gratifying.

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