By Daniel Bases
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 18 (Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution on Tuesday calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, overcoming protests from a bloc of states that said it undermined their sovereignty.
The resolution, which calls for "a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty," was passed by a 104 to 54 vote, with 29 abstentions.
"The resolution is not an interference, but we call on each member state of the United Nations to implement the resolution and also to open a debate on the death penalty," Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D‘Alema said after the vote.
"The moratorium is an important opportunity for international debate," he told reporters. Italy, speaking on behalf of the EU, was a strong proponent of the resolution.
Two similar moves in the 1990s failed in the assembly. The resolution’s text stops short of an outright demand for immediate abolition; it carries no legal force but backers say it has powerful moral authority.
Among nations who voted against were Egypt, Iran, Singapore, the United States and a bloc of Caribbean states.
Eighty-seven countries -- including the 27 European Union states, more than a dozen Latin American countries and eight African states -- jointly introduced the resolution, though opponents singled out the EU as the driving force.
The resolution picked up several extra votes in the General Assembly since it was passed by a U.N. human rights committee last month by a vote of 99-52 with 33 abstentions.
Barbados, one of the most vocal opponents of the measure, said sponsors were trying to impose their will on other countries and that it had been threatened with the withdrawal of aid over the issue.
"Capital punishment remains legal under international law and Barbados wishes to exercise its sovereign right to use it as a deterrent to the most serious crimes," Mohammed Degia, first secretary for Barbados, said just prior to the vote.
"Beyond all of this is the simple fact that the question of the death penalty is basically one of criminal justice as enforced and upheld within national legal systems," he said, noting that Barbados had not carried out an execution in decades but still retained the right to do so.
The United States voted against but kept a low profile throughout the resolution’s progress to a vote.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokeswoman Michele Montas said Ban welcomed the vote.
"Today’s vote represents a bold step by the international community," Montas quoted Ban as saying in a statement. "This is further evidence of a trend towards ultimately abolishing the death penalty."
According to rights group Amnesty International, 133 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. Opponents of the moratorium, however, said more than 100 countries retained capital punishment on their statutes, even if they did not all use it.
China, Iran, Iraq, the United States, Pakistan and Sudan account for about 90 percent of all executions worldwide, according to Amnesty.