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Strengthening official opposition to death penalties

By Tony Smith - posted Friday, 9 September 2005

Despite readers preferring dramatic headlines that scream of outrage about government excesses, critics should give credit where it is due.

While the Federal Coalition Government’s human rights record has been attacked because of policies towards asylum seekers and the US Government’s treatment of prisoners taken in the War on Terror, both the Minister for Justice, Senator Chris Ellison, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, have shown signs of serious commitment in the important area of opposition to the death penalty. For this, they deserve congratulations, but they should be encouraged to clarify Australia’s official policy on the death penalty and urged to strengthen Australia’s international campaign against capital punishment.

The security forces of far too many countries perpetrate some terrible abuses of human rights. Executions are among the most degrading and cruel forms of mistreatment and Australians can be proud that we have abandoned this barbaric practice.


Senator Ellison has promised that the Australian Government would “go into bat as hard as we can” to prevent the Bali Nine facing a firing squad in Indonesia (Sydney Morning Herald, August 22, 2005), and Mr Downer has announced that his appeals for clemency have saved the life of a condemned Australian man in Vietnam (ABC News Online, August 23, 2005). Both developments are very welcome. When accepting congratulations from ministerial colleagues, both ministers should take the opportunity to press for a tougher government position on capital punishment, so that such occurrences cannot be dismissed as isolated, ad hoc achievements.

The making of representations on behalf of citizens is a routine consular activity, and it would be preferable if our ministers did not appear to be merely looking after our own. The only appropriate stance on the death penalty is to adopt an attitude of principled rejection. This entails opposition everywhere and at all times. It is wrong to think that executions can be applied humanely and justly by some regimes and not others, or in some circumstances but not others. We should make our attitude plain to the world and should convey our disapproval strongly to any foreign government that claims the right to kill.

It is important we do not condone the actions of those countries that have used the opportunity posed by the War on Terror to increase the range of offences for which they intend to execute people. We joined the post 9-11 “posse” established by President George W. Bush even though we must have realised the vengeful mood of the US’s war on Afghanistan made it likely that the posse would become a lynch mob, summarily executing anyone suspected of links to Osama bin Laden.

Similarly, after the Bali bombing, the leaders of the Coalition Government and the ALP Opposition in Australia expressed no misgivings about the Indonesian legal system’s ability to apply the death penalty to the perpetrators. They might have qualified their comments by indicating they personally did not endorse capital punishment, but stopped short of condemning it for the barbarous and inhumane act that it is.

We need to ensure no ambivalence can be detected in our policy.

Despite the recent furore over the Corby case, on balance, the Australian Government has not shown great concern about other Australians arrested overseas. On the occasion of some arrests, the response of government spokespersons has been that people should learn what can happen if they traffic in drugs. If these had been domestic cases, some observers might have thought such comments conveyed a presumption of guilt. In the case of the Bali Nine, where Australian Federal Police were actively involved in the arrests, critics suggested we were effectively “outsourcing” the apprehension, trial and eventual punishment of the suspects. As that punishment could include execution, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Australian Government’s policy towards executions lacks clarity.


An ACT murder case highlights this problem. The body of an overseas student was found in her flat. Her former flatmate had returned to China and when the news broke he handed himself into Chinese authorities. There is no extradition treaty between China and Australia so the case became a matter for the Chinese authorities. According to media reports, as recently as May 2005, the Australian Government would not assist the Chinese police in the prosecution because it was possible the accused, if convicted, would be executed. This stand suggested our opposition to the death penalty is based on principle - that is, our abandonment of capital punishment reflects the belief that it is wrong at all times and in all places and it cannot be applied fairly or humanely anywhere.

More recently however, the Australian Government changed its position. It seems the Government originally asked the Chinese authorities to supply a written guarantee that the accused in the murder case would not be executed. Perhaps, because the accused is not an Australian citizen, China did not supply such a guarantee. The ACT Government decided, despite federal requests, it would continue to withhold co-operation, and this certainly seems to be the more principled stance.

This case is complex. Obviously, Australian authorities must hold coronial inquiries for all such cases. Australian security forces must be involved in the process and the findings must be made public. It would therefore, be difficult to quarantine Australian evidence from use overseas.

The possibility that Australia is even remotely implicated in executions gives greater urgency to the need for a strong, principled stance against capital punishment. Relativism has no place in the consideration of human rights. The key international document in this area is called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights precisely because human rights arise prior to membership of a state. No state should try to claim the authority to override the basic right to life. While we can be proud of our domestic policy in this matter and should give credit to the Minister for Justice and the Minister for Foreign Affairs for their actions, the current era of panic about terrorism makes it especially important that we unequivocally state our opposition to the use of capital punishment anywhere, at any time, by anyone.

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About the Author

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. He holds a PhD in political science and has had articles and reviews published in various newspapers, periodicals and journals. He contributed a poem 'Evil equations' to an anthology of anti-war poems delivered to the Prime Minister on the eve of war.

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