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Death penalty diplomacy and hypocrisy

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This post is part of the The death penalty debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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4 November 2008 13:45


This post is part of the The death penalty debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Sometimes, with a rueful shrug, a nation must spell 'diplomacy', h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y. Hypocrisy is far from the worst sin in pursuit of national interest, but there is usually a price to pay. The history of Australia’s relations in Southeast Asia hints at the diplomatic dynamic that will flow from the execution of the Bali bombers.

On the bombers, Kevin Rudd is adopting the exact position of the Howard Government. That puts Rudd at odds with the long-standing policy of the Australian Labor Party, with its statement of complete opposition to the death penalty.

The Prime Minister judges that uttering no words in opposition to the Indonesian firing squad is a reflection of the Australian popular will. Rudd follows Howard, who saw nothing wrong with the execution of Saddam Hussein, but protested forcefully at Singapore’s execution of the Australian citizen, Van Tuong Nguyen.

The eye-for-an-eye case rests on horrifying mathematics. Amrozi, Mukhlas and Samudra took 202 live – 88 of them Australians. Ignoring that equation caused serious grief to Labor’s Foreign Affair’s spokeman, Robert McLelland, during last year’s election campaign. He  gave a speech drawing an obvious inference from Labor’s opposition to the death penalty. In government, McLelland said, Labor would lobby Indonesia to spare the lives of the Bali bombers, because comments about the death penalty should be 'consistent with policy.'

The Howard Government leapt on McLelland. So did Kevin Rudd. In stating principle, McLelland had broken the rope-a-dope rule of politics: when your opponent is on the ropes, never stand between him and the canvas. Labor policy would go overboard if it hindered an election win. The result of that flurry is that Australia stood mute waiting for the execution (and, in government, McLelland finds himself serving as Attorney-General).

As with a few other regional issues, Australia learnt some tough lessons about the diplomacy of capital punishment from Mahathir Mohamad. Malaysia executed two Australian drug smugglers – Barlow and Chambers – in 1986. On the day of the hangings, the national conference of the ALP was in session in Hobart. Channelling the emotion of the moment, the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, denounced the executions during his keynote speech as 'barbaric'. From that moment, the long simmering tensions between Canberra and Kuala Lumpur exploded into full public view and never subsided for the rest of Mahathir’s reign.

Australian diplomats in Southeast Asia have since been careful to delete the bombast from statements of opposition to the death penalty. Australia’s policy would be based on a firm principle with universal application. In talking to the US or to Malaysia, Australia would express its opposition to capital punishment in similar terms. The formula has worked well in seeking clemency for Australian citizens in Vietnam. Obviously, it has been less successful with Singapore and Malaysia.

But the statement of principle now has an exception clause, because sometimes it is not politic to express the principle. This contradiction was well expressed by a member of the ALP Left, Wayne Berry, in what he called his 'retiring murmur' as he left the ACT Legislative Assembly after 19 years of service. The Rudd Government position, he said, 'sets Australia up as hypocrites when they protest about the imposition of the death penalty for Australians involved in particular crimes over there.' The death penalty could never be justified, Berry said: 'When the state conspires to kill somebody, it’s just another obscenity.'

Rudd might take some comfort from the musings of his fellow Queenslander, Bill Hayden, on the balance politicians must strike between practical policies and a deeply ingrained sense of what is morally right. Hayden quotes Niebhur: 'Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.'

Photo by Flickr user peppergrasss, used under a Creative Commons license.

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