Commentary | 04 May 2015

A diplomatic mission to abolish the death penalty would be a fitting response to executions

A diplomatic mission to abolish the death penalty would be a fitting response to executions

Dr Michael Fullilove

Sydney Morning Herald

4 May 2015

Click here for the online text.

  • Michael Fullilove

A diplomatic mission to abolish the death penalty would be a fitting response to executions

Dr Michael Fullilove

Sydney Morning Herald

4 May 2015

Click here for the online text.

  • Michael Fullilove

Executive Summary

Indonesia's executions of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, along with six other drug convicts, have thrown light on what George Orwell called "the unspeakable wrongness of cutting a life short when it is in full tide".

Many Australians are heartsick and furious at President Joko Widodo's approach to this case. Significant damage has been done to the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. No doubt there is more to come.

However, the Australian government should channel some of its anger in a constructive direction. Sukumaran and Chan are now lost to their families and friends, but the qualities they discovered in themselves in their years in Kerobokan prison could animate a new Australian initiative of lasting benefit.

Our government should signal that abolition of the death penalty is an Australian diplomatic priority, and devise a strategy to advance the issue. We should aim to become a leader in the international movement against the death penalty.

This initiative should be guided by the principles of effectiveness and prudence. The issuing of condemnations and the raising of sanctions would damage our interests without, in all likelihood, saving a single life. Instead we should look for creative new approaches to nudge the world towards abolition.

We should start with our own region. Asia is where we do most of our diplomatic and commercial business. It also contains the world's worst offenders when it comes to the death penalty. Last year China executed thousands of people, far more than the rest of the world combined. We don't even know exactly how many people the Chinese authorities executed. It is a state secret.

Half a dozen other Asian states, including several ASEAN members, carried out executions in 2014.

However, there is good news to go with the bad. Progress towards abolition is being made: 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. In the past 20 years, 40 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Five Asian states have abolished it in the past quarter of a century: Cambodia, Nepal, Timor-Leste, Bhutan and the Philippines.

If we are to focus on reducing the use of the death penalty in Asia, then we must make common cause with abolitionist Asian states. Australia cannot win this fight alone.

Our government should initiate a regional coalition of Asian states opposed to the death penalty. There are several ways to structure the coalition's work, none of them absolutist in tone. We should avoid slogans and focus on practical, achievable gains. We may decide, for example, to focus our resources on de facto abolitionist countries such as Sri Lanka and try to move them towards formal abolition.

There are other strategies we could employ, all of them more nuanced than simply demanding universal abolition. For example, the regional coalition could encourage retentionist countries to restrict the type of offences for which capital punishment is imposed; announce a moratorium on executions as part of a move towards abolition; abolish mandatory death penalties; release comprehensive official statistics about their use of the death penalty; guarantee that death sentences will not be carried out on children, pregnant women, or the insane; and institute safeguards to protect the rights of those on death row - for example the right not to be executed pending a legal appeal.

Governments should also consider appointing a high-level advisory body composed of eminent citizens of their countries. This group would provide gravitas to the exercise and cover for their governments.

Working harder to close death row - rather than just to get Australians off it - would be the right thing to do. It would also be the smart thing to do. At the moment we are open to accusations of special pleading. It is entirely appropriate that Australia prioritises the welfare of its own citizens. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been indefatigable in her efforts on behalf of the Bali two and deserves credit for that. But if we are loud when it comes to Australians and quiet when it comes to everyone else, then we undermine our credibility and effectiveness.

The better position from which to petition foreign governments on behalf of our nationals is one of active, not declaratory, opposition to the death penalty regardless of the nationality of the condemned. Such a stance would enable the government to deal with the issue positively and continually, rather than negatively and sporadically. It would increase the momentum towards universal prohibition and shield us from claims of hypocrisy.

Australia has an activist diplomatic history and some experience in building regional constituencies for particular initiatives. A new push against capital punishment would be hard, grinding work, but it would be in the best traditions of principled Australian diplomacy.

Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan and their fellow inmates died on Nusakambangan island in the middle of the night, in darkness. But perhaps something positive - a tiny ray of light - can escape from "Execution Island" after all.