The story of the 9 Australians arrested for heroin smuggling in Indonesia has brought the reality of the death penalty to the fore. The accused should be assumed to be innocent until their trials are finished, but it has to be said the evidence presented in the media to date doesn’t look good.
I am very strongly opposed to the death penalty in any circumstances and I get very frustrated at the unwillingness of our political leaders to do more to highlight its inherent barbarity. It is true that the drug trade also has its barbaric aspects and consequences, and this should also be affirmed, but one wrong should not be used to obscure another.
Australia’s police officers and other officials should participate wherever possible in assisting law enforcement activities in other countries, but we should seek to make our involvement conditional on it not leading to people being subjected to the death penalty. I realise there are practical problems with fully implementing this, but that is no reason not to try to implement the general principle.
I guess I should be thankful that we do not (at the moment) have politicians in Australia willing to score political points at the cost of other people’s lives by promoting the death penalty. However, even though the last state-sponsored execution in Australia was back in 1967, many of our political leaders, while not supporting a return of capital punishment, clearly have few qualms about it being carried out elsewhere and are not interested at all in trying to promote the wider abolition of the death penalty.
It is easy to turn a blind eye to the possible consequence of a death sentence when objectionable crimes like heroin smuggling, murder and terrorism are involved. But it is precisely with these unpopular cases that political leaders should take a firm position. Principles are easy to defend when they are popular, but if you don’t defend them when it is unpopular, they will inevitably be watered down.
I copped a lot of flack when I spoke out against the death sentence given to the Bali bombers in 2003, but it is precisely at these sorts of times that the principle of abolishing capital punishment needs to be reaffirmed. The gutless squibbing of the issue by John Howard and Simon Crean at that time is mirrored by the responses of Mr Howard and Mr Beazley to the potential of the death sentence being applied in the current situation as a direct result of the actions of Australian police. Indeed, as a party to the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Australian government has an obligation to work with other countries towards the international abolition of the death penalty, something they refused to acknowledge when challenged on this in the Senate. Of course it is true to say that the sovereignty of other countries should be respected and their laws should be determined by their own Governments, but that should not be used as an excuse to be blind to the consequences or to avoid making valid criticisms.
This reluctance to strongly support the abolition of capital punishment and speak out against its inherent barbarity also puts Australian lives at risk. Schapelle Corby has endured the spectre of execution in Bali for many weeks, other Australians currently face the death sentence in other south-east Asian countries, and it is clearly on the cards for some of the 9 people recently arrested in Indonesia.
Our Government cannot credibly ask for Australian citizens to be spared the death penalty in overseas countries if we indicate we have no concerns with such a sentence being carried out on others. Our Government obviously has a higher responsibility to protect the interests of Australians but that should not be mistaken for taking a view that other lives are of lesser value.
According to Amnesty International, the country that deliberately kills the most people through its ‘justice’ system is China, the very country John Howard has just visited in his efforts to explore further trade opportunities. I’m all for building trade opportunities, but not at the cost of turning a blind eye to major human rights abuses. This is particularly so with China. Apart from its record with executions, its oppression in Tibet, its persecution of Falun Gong, there is a fair amount of evidence that the ‘competitive’ economic position of this Communist regime is at least partly built on the grotesque exploitation of millions of its own people.