Human Rights, State Sanctioned Murder and Political Prudence

It cannot be but common knowledge to most Australians that the two men found to be ‘ringleaders’ of the Bali Nine heroin smuggling operation, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, are expected to be executed some time in the coming few weeks. There has been a media frenzy of controversy around Indonesia’s application of the death penalty (see, for example, The Conversation and University of Sydney News), the role of the Australian Federal Police in failing to apprehend the smugglers prior to leaving Australia (see, for example, ABC News , Independent Australia and SMH), and the fate of foreign nationals contravening local state laws (see, for example The Age and

There are over 50 countries, or 90 states and 2 territories where the death penalty still exists.  However, Amnesty International’s Death Sentences and Executions 2013, states that the majority of executions are thought to take place in China, though actual statistics are a state secret and credible estimates are not possible. Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia account for the bulk of the remaining excecutions, with Bangladesh, North Korea, Sudan, the United States and Yemen consistently executing prisoners in recent years, and a reversal of suspensions of the death penalty occurring in Vietnam, Nigeria, Kuwait and, as most Australians are now aware, Indonesia.

Amnesty International makes clear its stance: the death penalty is a human rights issue.  In their report (cited above), they quote Shakib Qortbawi, former Minister of Justice, Lebanon, who stated in 2013:

“The right to life precedes everything. The primary aspect of human rights is the right to life. There is no correlation between the death penalty and decreasing crime rate.”

The end of the unofficial morotorium on the death penalty under former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has seen his successor, President Joko Widodo, so far sanction the executions of six drug traffickers of various nationalities (Dutch, Brazilian, Malawian, Vietnamese, Nigerian and Indonesian), with more than 60 expected to follow.  The Netherlands’ government has recalled its Ambassador to Indonesia temporarily and issued a condemnation of the executions on human rights grounds.  Similarly, Brazil recalled its Ambassador and President Dilma Rousseff issued a statement of ‘regret’ and ‘outrage’. The Brazilian statement did not invoke human rights, rather the international trend away from capital punishment.  Both governments assert they did everything in their power to appeal to the Indonesian President for mercy for their citizens.

Could Australia conceivably hold more weight than either the Netherlands or Brazil in its entreaties to the Indonesian government to grant clemency?  According to Professor Philip Alston, a former UN diplomat, given Australia’s human rights record, not really.   Prime Minister Abbott has notably refrained from making a case on human rights grounds.  In fact, it is only in the light of his flailing popularity, and the obvious groundswell of popular opinion against the Indonesian executions, that he has been vocal much at all on the issue.  Prior to the six January executions, the PM had been adamant that Indonesian-Australian relations would not be jeopardised for the sake of the Australian drug traffickers.  Now, with Abbott’s thinly veiled threats regarding aid, and Julie Bishop’s somewhat problematic prediction that Australians will boycott Indonesia as a holiday destination, the Government seems to have thrown caution to the wind on that score.

But what are all these last minute ‘representations’ expected to achieve?  Is the Australian Government really more concerned about pacifying a particularly hostile constituency at home than safeguarding the Indonesian-Australian relations so important only a few weeks ago? Is it simply engaging in further political posturing using the lives of Australian citizens as grist to the mill?

Whatever the reason, it is far too little concerned about the issue of human rights and the worldwide trend to hope and agitate for universal abolition of the death penalty.


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