US targeted by execution abolitionists

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ABOLITIONIST GROUPS led by Amnesty International are launching a drive to secure a permanent end to capital punishment in the millennial year 2000, focusing on the four countries that accounted for 80 per cent of all executions last year: China, Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo - and above all the United States.

The campaign comes amid signs that the death penalty is on the retreat around the world. Only 37 countries executed people last year, while Russia, which has not put anyone to death since 1996, has become the most notable de facto addition to the 100-plus countries that have formally or informally abandoned capital punishment.

Others in 1998 to scrap it for all crimes included Bulgaria and the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Estonia and Lithuania. Moreover, a consensus is growing that certain categories, including minors, the old and the mentally ill, should be excluded from execution.

The glaring exception is the US, the only major industrialised nation that not only enthusiastically embraces the death penalty (3,500 people on death row and 68 executions in 1998 alone), but inflicts it on juveniles under 18 when they committed their offence, and the mentally infirm.

In the past, the individual state authorities in the US, which control executions, have brushed off criticism by human rights groups and other foes of the death penalty that the practice is inherently unfair, coming down disproportionately hard on the poor, on blacks and other minorities - or anyone with an incompetent defence lawyer.

But in the run-up to 2000, Amnesty is focusing special attention on the execution of minors. In particular, it cites two Texas executions in 1998, of Joseph Cannon and Robert Carter, both from abusive homes and both of whom suffered from brain damage and limited intelligence when they committed murder as 17-year-olds.

Of 18 documented cases of juveniles put to death since 1990, according to Amnesty, exactly half occurred in the US. Keeping unsavoury company with the world's self-appointed champion of democracy and human rights were an assortment of states vilified for human rights abuse, among them Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

Nor is capital punishment Amnesty's only quarrel with America. The group also blames Washington for a probably successful campaign to block a proposed international agreement that would ban the recruitment and use of child soldiers under 18.

The scene of conflict in this case is Geneva, where the International Labour Conference is striving to adopt a Worst Form of Child Labour convention. But opposition led by the US, Britain and the Netherlands seems likely to prevent the measure going through - despite every government in Africa, where the use of child soldiers is most widespread, supporting it.

Amnesty reckons that more than 300,000 children under 18 are fighting in conflicts around the world, from Kosovo to the Congo - many of them to be traumatised for ever by the experience. But the most likely move to emerge from the conference is a deal to prohibit "forced or compulsory" recruitment of children.

This would leave countries such as the US and Britain free to recruit 17-year-olds. Nor does it address the thorniest problem of armed oppositions, who are the biggest users of child soldiers but are beyond the reach of ordinary inter-governmental agreements.