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Swiss fund US death penalty campaigners

Many prisoners await their execution on death row in the United States, as at this prison in Arizona

(Keystone)

The Swiss government is financing an organisation campaigning in the United States for greater respect of international law - especially over the death penalty.

A key aim of the International Justice Project is to highlight death sentences passed on minors and the mentally handicapped.

The organisation works alongside police, lawyers, and judges to raise awareness of international conventions governing capital punishment.

Set up three years ago, the project is financed jointly by Switzerland and Britain. This year the foreign ministry's contribution amounted to SFr30,000 ($20,000).

But Anne James, the founder and director of the project, told swissinfo that Switzerland's contribution went well beyond financial backing.

"The Swiss believe in international law and they are totally behind us, which has helped push our organisation to the forefront," said James.

Marc Wey, an official at the Swiss embassy in Washington, said it was completely natural that the Swiss government should become involved in such a project.

"Switzerland has a long tradition of promoting international law and human rights, so there was a natural link with this NGO," Wey told swissinfo,

"It's not just about criticising the US and its politics, but also recognising that the US is an open country, which allows interested parties to use its resources and means to promote their own ways of thinking."

Widespread ignorance

James said the task of raising awareness of international law was enormous because of the widespread ignorance of the existence of certain conventions, coupled with an unwillingness to see them applied.

"It's a struggle, it really is, because international law is not accepted right away in the US, in the way that it is in Switzerland or elsewhere in Europe," the project director said.

She said international law was not an obligatory subject for law students in the US and that many lawyers thought it undermined national laws.

Because of the enormity of the task, the organisation concentrates on seminars for lawyers and focuses on highly controversial areas, such as death sentences passed on minors and the mentally handicapped - a strategy which appears to be producing results.

"More and more American lawyers are making reference to international law in their defence speeches, in particular in the case of minors," James told swissinfo.

"The number of lawyers our organisation is in contact with has quadrupled in three years, and more and more lawyers are coming to us for information," she added.

swissinfo

In brief

The International Justice Project was set up three years ago in the United States with Swiss and British backing. It campaigns to raise awareness of international law, particularly as it applies to capital punishment. Switzerland's contribution for 2002 amounted to SFr30,000.

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