Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New UN chief keeps distance from death penalty ban

New UN chief keeps distance from death penalty ban
By Evelyn Leopold

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon started his first day on the job on Tuesday by departing from the traditional U.N. opposition to the death penalty, saying nations can make their own decision.

Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister succeeding Kofi Annan of Ghana, was greeted by a U.N. honor guard, went to a U.N. meditation chapel to honor fallen peacekeepers, spoke to reporters and held a mass meeting with U.N. staff.

Asked about the weekend execution of Saddam Hussein, Ban said the former Iraqi leader committed "heinous crimes and unspeakable atrocities against the Iraqi people and we should never forget the victims of these crimes."

But he said "the issue of capital punishment is for each and every member state to decide" and in conformity with international law.

South Korea is among 68 nations that retain the death penalty, although Seoul is considering abolishing it.

Groups such as Human Rights Watch have criticized the execution of Saddam, saying it was imposed after a "deeply flawed trial" with political interference. Annan and leading U.N. rights officials also have opposed capital punishment, as has the European Union.

The U.N. special representative in Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, released a statement on Sunday saying the world body "remains opposed to capital punishment, even in the case of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide."

Ban's new spokeswoman, Michele Montas of Haiti, said "the U.N. policy still remains that the organization is not for capital punishment." She said Ban's comments were nuanced but would not say whether he agreed with Qazi.

While Ban, 62, intends to make a fresh start, he is being pressured by the United States, Britain, France and others for control of key departments -- as were his predecessors.


Sir John Holmes, Britain's ambassador to France, is expected to head the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, formerly run by Jan Egeland, who resigned last month and returned to Norway, U.N. sources said.

The Times of London accused British Prime Minister Tony Blair of cronyism for championing a personal friend and said Holmes had little experience, compared with Egeland, in relief work.

It is uncertain what post the United States will get. Washington had been interested in the peacekeeping department but most envoys believe Jean-Marie Guehenno of France will stay on the job, at least for the time being.

The United States for years held the management and administration department, which is now expected to go to Alicia Barcena, a Mexican biologist and environmentalist who served as Annan's chief of staff.

Ban's main message to the staff was that "morale has plummeted" in recent years when the bureaucracy was the target of harsh criticism.

"Not all the criticisms are justified but some of them warrant our urgent attention and we must take bold steps to dispel them," he said.

Ban also told reporters the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region was "very high on my agenda" and that he would meet with his special envoy Jan Eliasson of Sweden on Wednesday morning.

Ban said he would attend an African Union summit at the end of January in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and talk there with Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

The United Nations is seeking to get a peacekeeping force in Sudan's arid Darfur region, where violence has escalated and more than 2.5 million people have lost their homes. Bashir has put conditions on a U.N. peacekeeping force to bolster the under-financed 7,000 African Union troops now in Darfur.