Commentary | 23 August 2006

A proposal to curb Asia's over-active death row

In this Comment piece in the Financial Times, Dr Michael Fullilove of the Lowy Institute observes that although the Western press gives the impression that most executions occur in the American boondocks, in fact Asia is world's best practice at executing people. He argues for the establishment of a regional coalition against the death penalty, to nudge retentionist Asian states toward abolition. The op-ed draws on Dr Fullilove's recent Policy Brief, Capital punishment and Australian foreign policy.Financial Times, 23 August 2006, p. 11Michael Fullilove

  • Michael Fullilove

In this Comment piece in the Financial Times, Dr Michael Fullilove of the Lowy Institute observes that although the Western press gives the impression that most executions occur in the American boondocks, in fact Asia is world's best practice at executing people. He argues for the establishment of a regional coalition against the death penalty, to nudge retentionist Asian states toward abolition. The op-ed draws on Dr Fullilove's recent Policy Brief, Capital punishment and Australian foreign policy.Financial Times, 23 August 2006, p. 11Michael Fullilove

  • Michael Fullilove

Executive Summary

George Orwell's famous account of a hanging in colonial Burma provides a compelling critique of the death penalty. Walking behind the condemned man on the way to the gallows, Orwell noticed him step slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

"It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man," he wrote. "When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive . . . his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned - reasoned even about puddles."

If you were to judge from the western press you might think this kind of gruesome scene takes place most often in the American boondocks. But while it is always good sport to criticise the US, in terms of lives lost it is marginal.

Asia - the region in which Orwell's essay was set - is the world's best practice when it comes to executing people, accounting for well over80 per cent of known executions worldwide: 15 Asian states retain the death penalty; their execution methods include hanging, shooting and lethal injection. Singapore scores the world's highest per capita execution rate, with more than 400 hung since 1991, according to United Nations figures. China, meanwhile, is the death-penalty superpower, executing at least 1,770 people last year, according to Amnesty International. The true total is likely to be much higher but, like a number of Asian states (but unlike the much- maligned US), China refuses to provide official statistics on death sentences passed and executions carried out.

However, the news is not all bad for those Asians who oppose capital punishment. Five Asian states have abolished the death penalty in the past decade: Cambodia, Nepal, Timor-Leste, Bhutan and the Philippines, where President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed a bill outlawing the death penalty in June.

To build on this momentum, abolitionist states in the region should establish a coalition against the death penalty. Support and counsel from Europe would be welcome but in order to forestall any claims about neo-colonialism, the running should be made by Asian leaders.

The coalition should be guided by a single consideration: effectiveness. Rather than issuing loud condemnations and raising indiscriminate trade sanctions, which would be unlikely to save a single life, it should look for creative ways to nudge regional countries toward abolition.

There are several ways to structure the coalition's work, none of which would involve megaphones. It could be politic to start with de facto abolitionist countries (such as Burma) and seek to move them up the spectrum towards formal abolition. It could focus initially on liberal democracies, which tend to be easier to influence than more closed societies.

A particular opportunity exists in South Korea, which has not executed anyone since 1998 but maintains a death row of 60-odd individuals. There is a growing abolitionist movement in the country, supported by Kim Dae-jung, former president. A similar debate is stirring in Malaysia. Ultimately this issue will be decided in Seoul and Kuala Lumpur, but a regional grouping may be able to influence the thinking in these and other capitals.

Rather than simply demanding immediate universal abolition, the coalition should employ more nuanced strategies. It could, for example, encourage retentionist countries to restrict the number and type of offences for which capital punishment is imposed, abolish mandatory death penalties, release comprehensive official statistics on regional executions and institute safeguards to protect the basic rights of those on death row.

The coalition could also consider appointing a high-level advisory body composed of eminent people, in order to generate ideas and provide political cover. A good model for such a body was Canada's International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which first identified the collective international "responsibility to protect" civilians in the case of genocide, ethnic cleansing and egregious human rights violations.

The task for abolitionists is extremely difficult but not hopeless. If advocates in Asia put a shoulder to this wheel, they may be able to move it a good distance. Certainly, wheels rarely shift without being pushed.