UN chief raises eyebrows by not repeating organization's opposition to death penalty

The Associated Press
International Herald Tribune

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, ran into trouble on his first day of work Tuesday over Saddam Hussein's execution when he failed to state the United Nations' opposition to the death penalty and said capital punishment should be a decision of individual countries.

The UN has an official stance opposing capital punishment and Ban's predecessor, Kofi Annan, reiterated it frequently. The top UN envoy in Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, restated it again Saturday after the former Iraqi dictator was hanged.

Ban, however, took a different approach, never mentioning the UN ban on the death penalty in all its international tribunals, and the right to life enshrined in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"Saddam Hussein was responsible for committing heinous crimes and unspeakable atrocities against Iraqi people and we should never forget victims of his crime," Ban said in response to a reporter's question about Saddam's execution Saturday for crimes against humanity. "The issue of capital punishment is for each and every member state to decide."

His ambiguous answer put a question mark over the UN's stance on the death penalty. It also gave the new chief an early taste of how every word can make a difference.

Michèle Montas, Ban's new spokeswoman, insisted that no change in UN policy was involved in what she described as Ban's "own nuance" on the death penalty.

"The UN policy still remains that the organization is not for capital punishment," she said. "However, the way the law is applied in different countries, he left it open to those different countries."

The death penalty is legal in Ban's homeland, South Korea, as it is in many other countries, including the United States, Russia, China and much of the Middle East.

Ban, who took over on New Year's Day from Annan, is the first Asian to serve as secretary general in 35 years. Tuesday was his first day of work at UN headquarters.