A U.N. general assembly committee passed a resolution Thursday calling for a halt on executions — with the objective of abolishing the death penalty — but struck down provisions that protected the right to life of unborn children.
The human rights committee voted 99-52 to approve the draft resolution on the divisive death penalty issue after two days of acrimonious debate. A total of 33 countries abstained.
Supporters say they expect the full 192-General Assembly to also pass the resolution in mid-December because countries voting in favor of ending the death penalty are unlikely to change their positions. The assembly had turned down a proposed death penalty moratorium in 1994.
Although the vote is not legally binding, it would indicate where the international body stands in regards to capital punishment and carry moral and political weight, said human rights groups.
The resolution, co-sponsored by European Union states and 60 other countries, states that the death penalty "undermines human dignity." It calls on countries that still allow capital punishment "to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty" and those that have abolished the punishment not to reintroduce it.
It also urges countries with the practice "to restrict its use and reduce the number of offenses for which the death penalty may be imposed" and to respect international standards that provide safeguards guaranteeing the protection of those facing execution.
Human rights group Amnesty International called the resolution's passage a "major step towards the abolition of the death penalty worldwide."
"Establishing a moratorium on executions is an important tool to convince states still using the death penalty to engage in a nationwide debate and to review their laws on capital punishment," said Irene Khan, Amnesty International's secretary general, in a statement.
Voting against the resolution were the United States, China, Syria, Iran, and many developing countries, notably those of the Islamic community.
Dissenting voters, including Singapore and Barbados, accused co-sponsoring countries for imposing their values on others and pressuring them to comply. Barbados said it had even been threatened with the withdrawal of aid if it opposed the moratorium.
According to Amnesty, 91 percent of all known executions last year took place in China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and the United States. The London-based group also noted that the number of total executions has declined from 2005 and over 130 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.
Over 15 proposed amendments were turned down earlier Thursday, two of which addressed abortion.
The U.S. joined Syria, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, among others, in voting in favor of the first amendment, which argued for the right to life of unborn children and would have urged all countries "to take all necessary measures to protect the lives of unborn children."
"We are in agreement with the view expressed in this amendment that the lives of the unborn deserve the strongest protection, and we agree that countries that advocate for the abolition of the death penalty should be at least equally scrupulous in showing concern for innocent life," U.S. delegate Joseph Rees told the committee.
The U.S abstained from the second amendment that would add a reference to abortion, allowing it only "in necessary cases, in particular, where life of mother and/or the child is at serious risk."