The Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, was in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, yesterday, trying to persuade African heads of state to sign up to a global moratorium on capital punishment after Britain sank an effort to have the EU back the initiative as a bloc.
At the summit of the African Union, Mr Prodi called on the continent's leaders to endorse "the defence of life, the supreme and undeniable right even though it is often trampled underfoot". He went on, "We cannot remain indifferent in the face of this moral imperative. We must be for life and against death, as we are against injustice and suffering."
Italy's latest attempt to galvanise the world into rejecting the death penalty began when Marco Panella, an MEP and civil rights campaigner, went on hunger strike after hearing that Saddam Hussein was to be executed. Abolishing capital punishment is one of the few issues on which all parties in Italy's ruling centre-left coalition agree, and Mr Pannella's campaign prompted Mr Prodi to take up the challenge of putting the proposal before the UN's General Assembly. But when his Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, tried to obtain backing for the proposal at the EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels last week, Britain shot it down.
British diplomats said privately that they did not wish to create difficulties for the United States at a delicate time and they did not believe it was possible to do it now. Holland, Denmark and Hungary subsequently took the same view.
It is the second time that Tony Blair's government has torpedoed Italian efforts to spread Europe's confirmed aversion to capital punishment across the world. The first was in 1999, when a last-minute British "no" killed the initiative.
While in Ethiopia, Mr Prodi revealed he had met the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, to appeal to him to spare the lives of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death for infecting hundreds of children with HIV. He said Col Gaddafi had told him there were still "problems of reparations and compensation" but he would "reflect" on the issue.Reuse content