OSLO — Norway, which hasn't had capital punishment since 1979, is embroiled in an acrimonious debate over whether to ratify a U.N. treaty that would oblige signatories to abolish the death penalty "for all times."
In a country otherwise noted for placid consensus politics, military and political leaders are on a collision course as Parliament moves toward ratification of the treaty.
Since the country does not have a death penalty, the debate rages over whether the Storting, the Norwegian parliament, should have the option of reinstating it, particularly in wartime as it did during World War II.
Among the strong supporters of ratification is Labor Party Defense Minister Johan J. Holst.
"He is opposed in principle to the death penalty, in wartime as well as peacetime," Defense Ministry spokesman Gunnar Angeltveit said.
A majority in Parliament supports ratification but strong criticism has come from military leaders, constitutional specialists and war veterans, who claim that the proposed treaty does not have popular backing.
"Parliament needs time to consider all aspects of the death penalty question. It seems that the government is trying to smuggle this matter through the back door," said Hans Roesjorde, chairman of Norway's Defense Committee.
"Is there no end to the irresponsibility of politicians in taking decisions with no basis in popular support?" said wartime resistance veteran Per Munthe-Kaas.
"In 1942, I was told by the resistance leadership that I was allowed to kill myself, if necessary. But I was not allowed to shoot a German," he said.
"We have to retain the option of carrying out death sentences when all other civilized rules have been pushed aside," said another veteran, Tore Gjelsvik, who organized underground operations during World War II.
"I do not understand how it would be possible to carry out organized resistance operations without being allowed to kill those who try to crush us," Gjelsvik added.
The U.N. treaty on capital punishment has been ratified by only four countries--Sweden, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand.
Norway abolished the death penalty for civilian crimes in 1905. The last execution took place in 1876 when murderer Kristoffer Nilsen Grindalen was publicly beheaded on a scaffold built--according to custom--near the scene of the crime.
Capital punishment was retained for certain military crimes in wartime. During Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945, Norway's government-in-exile reintroduced the death penalty for certain civilian crimes as well, notably political high treason.
After liberation of the country in 1945, a number of Germans and Norwegians who had sided with the occupying power were tried and condemned to death.
Among those executed was Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian puppet dictator, shot by a firing squad in October, 1946. His fate was shared by 25 other Norwegians and 13 Germans, the last execution taking place in 1948.
Parliament abolished the death penalty altogether in 1979.
In the debate at the time, the point was made that the Storting could reintroduce capital punishment if future events made it necessary.
It is this option that will be removed if Norway ratifies the U.N. treaty.
Supporters of ratification say a death sentence, once executed, is irreversible and argue that when the state takes a criminal's life, it lowers itself to the moral standards of the criminal.
"Whether someone becomes a traitor or not is hardly a question of what punishment that person faces," said Paul Gioertz, secretary general of the Norwegian branch of the human rights organization Amnesty International.
"A person does not sit down and calculate what risk he runs in a cool and cynical manner. Peacetime statistics show that most murders and other serious crimes are committed in situations of great stress. Wartime is hardly less stressful," Gioertz added.
But opponents say the absence of a judicial death penalty will inevitably lead to mob rule and lynchings of traitors and collaborators in the aftermath of a war. They also question the morality of asking a country's soldiers to sacrifice their lives, while compatriots who put those soldiers' lives at risk through treason or spying face nothing worse than a prison term.
Other European countries that have abolished capital punishment in peacetime maintain it for wartime.
Although British parliamentarians have repeatedly rejected attempts to reintroduce a peacetime death penalty, nobody has suggested banning it in wartime.
Britain retains the death penalty for five wartime offenses--assisting the enemy, serious misconduct in action, obstructing operations, mutiny or failure to suppress mutiny.
In Poland, where courts have stopped giving death sentences pending an abolition law, few expect wartime crimes to be included in the reprieve.
"Laws can be tougher in wartime," said Col. Jan Malinowski, chief of Poland's Military Court.
The Soviet military was adamant that wartime capital punishment is a necessity.
"The death penalty must exist for spies, for those who abandon their arms in combat as they betray their state," said Col. Alexander Trukhin of the Main Military Prosecutor's Office in Moscow.