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PM’s plan to resume hanging faces UN obstacle

By Andre Bagoo Sunday, January 16 2011

click on pic to zoom in
Foreign Affairs Minister Suruj Rambachan...
Foreign Affairs Minister Suruj Rambachan...

WHILE PRIME Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar last Friday announced plans to fight crime by resuming hanging, Trinidad and Tobago faces a major political obstacle if it intends to begin executions because this country has failed to convince the United Nations to allow states to carry out the death penalty.

In a little-publicised move, this country two months ago attempted to have a UN resolution which calls for a moratorium on the death penalty amended so as to allow member states to hang in line with domestic laws.

The UN resolution — to which this country is party — calls on member states, “to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty” and “to progressively restrict the use of the death penalty and reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed”. But on Friday, Persad-Bissessar said this country will amend its laws to clear the way for the resumption of the practice of hanging.

According to a UN report published last month, Trinidad and Tobago, at a meeting of the General Assembly’s Third Committee on November 11, 2010, sponsored and voted for four amendments which would have effectively watered-down the moratorium by removing jurisdiction on the issue from the UN and leaving it to the domestic legal systems of member states.

One amendment — backed by several other countries including members of the Caricom block of nations — would have made clear that nothing in the UN Charter “shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State”.

Another amendment called for recognition “that many Member States retain the death penalty on their statutes for the most serious crimes.” A third re-affirmed “the sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal system, including determining appropriate legal penalties, in accordance with their obligations under international law.” A fourth oral amendment — proposed by the Bahamas and supported by Trinidad and Tobago among other nations — would have amended the terms of the moratorium so that member states would be compelled to merely consider establishing a moratorium as opposed to actually compelling them to do it.

Trinidad and Tobago sponsored or voted for these amendments. But the amendments were defeated, respectively, 79 to 62 (with 32 abstentions); 81 to 51 (with 33 abstentions); 79 to 58 (with 38 abstentions); and 82 to 54 (with 29 abstentions).

The UN General Assembly approved the moratorium, without the amendments, last month.

This week, high-ranking Cabinet sources claimed the UN was not an obstacle to hanging.

“The only thing that stands in our way is the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights,” one senior Cabinet member argued. “We are looking at the issue.”

The votes came almost a month after Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar addressed the UN General Assembly in New York, United States of America. On the very day that the proposed amendments were all defeated, Persad-Bissessar returned from a trip to the United States, alongside her Minister of Foreign Affairs Suraj Rambachan.

At the time of a press conference held at the Piarco International Airport, media headlines were being dominated by two issues: a scandal over spying and the firing of a journalist reportedly at Rambachan’s behest. From November 11, 2010, right up to this month, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made no mention of the failed bid to amend the UN moratorium.

Contacted this week, Rambachan said he was aware of the votes, but could not speak on the issue as he was not familiar enough with “the file”.

“I am aware of it but I have to go through the file,” the Minister of Foreign Affairs said. “I really am not fully au courant with it.”

The issue of hanging first emerged last year after the May 24, 2010, General Election after several Cabinet members — including Works and Transport Minister Jack Warner — went public with their calls to resume hanging. Finally, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar commented on the issue, and rebuffed her Cabinet members for speaking publically on the issue.

At a press briefing at the Coco Reef Hotel, Tobago, on September 2, 2010, about a month before the failed UN bid, Persad-Bissessar said of hanging, “The law is on our statute books. It is the rule of the law. We will act according to the rule of the law.”

But on November 11, 2010, the UN effectively rejected this by its rejection of the amendment to reaffirm “the sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal system, including determining appropriate legal penalties, in accordance with their obligations under international law.” The moratorium, endorsed by the UN last month, dates back to 2007.



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