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A key domino? Indonesia's death penalty politics

1 March 2012   |   Analysis   |   By Dr Dave McRae

The application of the death penalty by Australia's Southeast Asian neighbours recurrently strains bilateral relations. The execution of Australians in the region sharply highlights the differences between each country's punishments for criminal offences. Executions in Southeast Asia also undermine Australia's commitment to abolition. In a new Analysis, Lowy Institute Research Fellow Dr Dave McRae examines Indonesia's stance on the death penalty and the prospects for abolition in Australia's key regional neighbour.

'Though it will be Indonesia that determines whether or when it will abolish the death penalty, Australia can and should do more to promote abolition through multilateral diplomacy and by seeking to create space for bilateral advocacy.'

Rudianto/Demotix
Key Findings
Indonesia remains at a crossroads concerning capital punishment, with competing forces advocating for greater use of the death penalty and for its abolition.
Indonesia is more likely the key domino that could influence other Southeast Asian nations to abolish the death penalty, rather than vice versa.
Whether or not Indonesia abolishes the death penalty matters to Australia for principled and practical reasons.

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    Executive Summary

    Indonesia is at a crossroads regarding the death penalty. Competing forces advocate for greater use of capital punishment and for its abolition. Additionally, the imperative to protect Indonesian citizens on death row abroad could provide a new pragmatic reason for abolition, a factor that could also affect emerging powers China and India.

    Whether or not Indonesia abolishes the death penalty matters to Australia for principled and practical reasons. Two members of the 'Bali Nine' heroin smuggling ring, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, face execution there, a situation that could severely disrupt bilateral relations. An abolitionist Indonesia potentially also could be a key domino that spurs other Southeast Asian states to abolish the death penalty. But Australia's position is compromised because successive Australian governments expressed support for the execution of the Bali bombers, and because of the self-interest embodied in the plight of Chan and Sukumaran.

    Though it will be Indonesia that determines whether or when it will abolish the death penalty, Australia can and should do more to promote abolition. Multilaterally, the government should engage other Asian abolitionist states to encourage Indonesia to move towards abolition. Another key step is for the government to signal its opposition to all executions in Indonesia, even when unpopular within Australia, thereby creating space for bilateral advocacy. For advocacy to be effective, Australia must itself be a principled and consistent opponent of the death penalty. In its advocacy, also, the government must signal its genuine intent to encorage abolition, whilst acknowledging that Australia is not in a position of dictating terms.