In its annual report issued today, the group -- called Hands Off Cain -- says that a worldwide campaign in recent years against the death penalty is working. It says capital punishment, for the most part, is now a tool primarily of dictators.
The group's executive director, Elizabetta Zamparutti, tells our correspondent in a telephone interview from Rome that death penalty abolition is a function of liberal democracy.
"The problem of the executions is mainly a problem for dictatorial and illiberal countries, because in these kinds of countries we have seen that at least 98 percent of the world total of executions are carried out," Zamparutti says.
She continues, "This means that the campaign for the abolition of the death penalty is, first of all, a campaign for improving democracy all over the world."
The report, which covers last year, says that the greatest number of state-sanctioned executions was in China with 5,000 killings -- 89 percent of the world total. Nations responsible for most of the remaining executions were Iran, with at least 145, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Singapore, Sudan, and the United States.
Even in the United States, where 65 executions were carried out last year, Zamparutti notes there were decreases in the number of death sentences handed down, in the number of people on death row, and in actual executions.
"This means that the campaign for the abolition of the death penalty is, first of all, a campaign for improving democracy all over the world."
Hands Off Cain was founded at the European Parliament in Brussels in 1993 and began that year a campaign to abolish capital punishment worldwide. Its immediate goal is to persuade the UN General Assembly to declare a moratorium on executions.
Since its first effort in 1994 to win a European Union moratorium declaration, the group claims as victories European Union-wide capital punishment abolition and repeated anti-death penalty resolutions by the UN Commission on Human Rights.
The group takes its name from the biblical story of Genesis, in which God put a mark on Cain so that anyone finding him would know not to kill him. Cain, as the story goes, had murdered his brother.
The report says 133 nations around the world have made official decisions not to use the death penalty.
Zamparutti says the picture actually is brighter than that.
"And countries that retain the death penalty are 63, and not all of these put people to death regularly. In fact, in 2003, only 29 retentionist countries carried out executions," Zamparutti says.
Hands On Cain says the value of a UN General Assembly-declared moratorium is that it would give states that still retain the death penalty an opportunity to educate their citizens about the idea of a new human right -- as the group puts it, the right "not to be killed" under the law.
(More information is available at http://www.handsoffcain.org)