UNITED NATIONS—The General Assembly adopted a moratorium on the death penalty Tuesday, overcoming opposition from the United States, China and others that argued each nation should be able to choose for itself how to combat crime.
The 104-54 vote for suspending executions is not legally binding, but represents a growing global trend against a punishment that many countries say undermines human rights, is a questionable deterrent and has mistakenly killed innocent people.
Two previous attempts to have the General Assembly adopt a moratorium on the death penalty, in 1994 and 1999, failed.
But since then, the number of countries that have abolished capital punishment in law or practice has grown to 133, according to Amnesty International.
"Today's vote represents a bold step by the international community," said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "This is further evidence of a trend towards ultimately abolishing the death penalty."
When Ban took office in January, he responded to questions about the execution of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by saying that each country should be allowed to choose its own policies, but he quickly embraced the official U.N. anti-death penalty view.
The European Union, which requires its 27 members to outlaw capital punishment, led the campaign at the U.N.
Italy's Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema came to New York for the vote, and hailed it as "an important step" to end capital punishment. The Colosseum of Rome, once the stage of public executions, was illuminated Tuesday night to celebrate the moratorium.
The U.S. joined China, Iran, Sudan and Syria in opposing the resolution, arguing that it interfered with their sovereign rights.
The U.S. kept a low profile, leaving most of the vocal criticism to countries like Barbados, Nigeria and Singapore.
"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," said Mohammed Degia, the delegate from Barbados, before the vote.
Amnesty International says China is the world leader in executions, and that it, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and the U.S. account for 91% of all executions.
Forty-two prisoners have been executed in the U.S. so far this year.
Despite Washington's official policy embracing the death penalty, New Jersey banned capital punishment Monday.
It was the first state in 40 years to join the 13 other states that do not allow executions.
"These accomplishments, in New Jersey and at the U.N., provide vital proof that there is worldwide growth of a new moral standard of decency and of respect for human rights, even the rights and lives of those who may have committed severe crimes," said Mario Marazziti, co-founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.