Comment: Let's not rest until the death penalty is a thing of the past around the world

A sign outside Brisbane's St Stephen's Cathedral protesting the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukamaran, Monday, April 27, 2015. Source: AAP

In many parts of the world, capital punishment has been abolished for all crimes - but there's more work to be done.

In a sane world, shouldn’t the right to life trump political expediency?

Apparently not: given the addiction of some countries to the death penalty, and the possible re-introduction of capital punishment by some of our neighbours in the region.

Issues around capital punishment reverberated throughout our community last year, with the execution of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, two Australians who spent 10 years on death row in Kerobokan prison. The bipartisan position of the Australian Parliament, as well as the pleadings of many in the international community did little to persuade the Indonesian President to show mercy.

I remember all too well the conditions of death row from when I visited members of the Bali Nine at Denpasar.

Having met with Myuran, Andrew and Scott Rush and some of their families I also witnessed first-hand, what can only be described as a successful rehabilitation: Myuran an accomplished Artist and Andrew a prison Counsellor and religious Pastor.

If anything, this should have been seen as an example of the accomplishments of Indonesia's correctional system - proof that people can turn their lives around and make a positive contribution to society, even after going down such a dark path. Instead, it resulted in two funerals, no social benefit and two deeply grieving families, innocent of any wrongdoing.  

Together with Phillip Ruddock, I have been the convenor of Australian Parliamentarians Against the Death Penalty and sought to publicly advocate for the right to life and arguing that capital punishment is not the answer. Most credible criminal justice research shows that the death penalty does not deter crime.

Partly due to the diplomatic fall out following the 2015 executions, which included the execution of a Brazilian man with mental health issues, the Indonesian Government placed a moratorium on further executions. But it didn’t last long.

“It is clear that we have a long way to go with our efforts to preserve the right to life. As Parliamentarians and community leaders, I believe we have a moral and legal obligation to advance the cause of global abolition of this cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment.”

Indonesian Attorney-General H.M Prasetyo has recently confirmed that executions will resume in the near future. The government has already moved 3 prisoners, to Nusakambangan Island, better known as ‘Death Island,’ a facility reserved for executions by firing squad. According to Amnesty International, around 10-15 people are being considered for the next round of executions which include both Indonesian and foreign nationals.

Astonishingly, Yusman Telaumbanua, currently on death row in Indonesia for a crime he committed when he was 16, was sentenced to death as a child, not at the request of the prosecution but of his own lawyer. This in itself would have set the alarm bells ringing for any reasonable person let alone members of the Judiciary.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions clarified in his 2012 report that the death penalty “may only be imposed for crimes that involve intentional killing.” This effectively limited its application to premeditated murder and certainly not crimes of passion. Clearly these views are being ignored in favour of domestic political posturing.

The Philippines, largely a Catholic country, abolished capital punishment in 2006. But for rank popularism, President-elect Rodrigo Duterte indicated he will re-introduce the death penalty.  During his election campaign, Duterte issued a series of inflammatory statements that contravenes the Philippines’ international human rights obligations, including his promise to reduce crime rates by shooting suspected criminals.

He also says he would ‘execute 100,000 criminals and dump them into Manila Bay.’ It is worrying to see in such an emerging nation that political leaders are still looking for the future in the rear view mirror. Re-introducing such barbaric and archaic measures when there is clearly no evidence to prove that the death penalty reduces crime shows little vision in a civilised world.

Although the trend is clear as 140 nations have now abolished the death penalty, five countries including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States account for the majority of executions. While China keeps its numbers secret, according to Amnesty International, it suggests the figure is in excess of 2,000 people. Nevertheless, 2015 saw the highest number of executions worldwide since 1989.

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade presented a report to the Australian Parliament this month entitled ‘A world without the death penalty: Australia’s advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty. I gave evidence to the committee regarding the importance of active participation in this debate and not being bashful when asserting values held dear by Australians, particularly when engaging foreign governments. The report makes a number of important recommendations including that Australia should allocate additional resources in assisting efforts of the world wide abolition of the death penalty.

It is clear that we have a long way to go with our efforts to preserve the right to life. As Parliamentarians and community leaders, I believe we have a moral and legal obligation to advance the cause of global abolition of this cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment.

I think the former Chief Judge of the South African Constitution Court, Ismail Mohammed, expressed it best when he said, “The death penalty sanctions the deliberate annihilation of life … it is the last, the most devastating and the most irreversible recourse of the criminal law, involving,” as it necessarily does, “the planned and calculated termination of life itself; the destruction of the greatest and most precious gift which is bestowed on all humankind.”

Chris Hayes is the Labor MP for Fowler.

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