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The seriousness of death

Some people deserve to die. But it's not up to us to decide.


Regardless of the principled attitude to the death penalty, few mourn Saddam Hussein. If some people deserve to die, he did. Iraq's former dictator was responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives lost. With torture, sadism and ruthless brutality, he has secured an imitation of the most brutal despots of the last century. It was precisely this Ban Ki-moon emphasized on his first official day as UN Secretary-General, when he recalled the scale of Hussein's "heinous crimes and indescribable atrocities against his people". But he represented South Korea more than the UN view when he topped it all off with a statement that the issue of the death penalty is up to each country to decide.

Fortunately, the Secretary-General has better helpers than small grays, and his spokeswoman Michele Montas immediately went on to explain what Ki-moon really meant: The countries can adopt the laws they want, but the UN still opposes the death penalty as an organization. For public opinion, the difference was minimal. For among all those who do not mourn Saddam Hussein's death, there are plenty of those who otherwise talk nicely about human rights, but who do not think it is so dangerous if we introduce the death penalty for dictators, in war and such. Although it is easy to be seduced by the thought, this is where it starts to get dangerous.

For when even the UN Secretary-General forgets the organization's principled stance on the death penalty, more important things are at risk than the Iraqis' well-founded desire for revenge. It is our mutual respect for human rights.

One does not justify a violation of human rights by committing new ones. It's been a long time since we've heard more reasonable statements from an Italian prime minister than a UN Secretary General. Kofi Annan often reminded us of the UN's stance on the death penalty. Now we look at Italy's Romani Prodi and his proposal for an international ban on the death penalty. And while millions of people click on the web to see color films with close-ups of Saddam Hussein's hang, we should be careful to become part of the crowd eager for the most public execution of the time. Justified violations of human rights only lead to new ones.

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