There is no place for the death penalty in the modern world. State execution is a barbaric act that demeans the State that carries it out. The death penalty is cruel and inhumane, and is inevitably associated with miscarriages of justice, the inadvertent execution of innocents, and the disproportionate execution of the poor and ethnic and religious minorities. Not only does an eye for an eye leave the world blind, but the deliberate destruction of human life as a response to crime is an affront to the ‘right to life’, enshrined under international human rights law.
The world has come a long way towards ceasing the practice of capital punishment. Amnesty International tells us that in 1977 only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty. Since that year, Amnesty and many others have campaigned vigorously for an end to capital punishment, and by 2015 140 countries had abolished it law or in practice.
However, there is no room for complacency. There are still 56 countries that actively retain the death penalty, including some that execute hundreds of people each year. Disturbingly, the year 2015 saw the highest number of executions recorded worldwide since 1989. It also saw the appalling executions of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia for drug trafficking, despite impassioned appeals from many Australians and sympathetic Indonesians.
Thankfully this spike in executions was counterbalanced by four countries abolishing the death penalty for all crimes. This was the highest number to join the abolitionist list in a single year for almost a decade. Half of the countries in the world have now abolished capital punishment completely.
Australia has long supported abolition, and is an active advocate on the world stage. As a nation, we can be proud of our advocacy and our support for the United Nations’ work on abolition. But Australia can do more. Evidence received in the course of this inquiry offered many ideas for invigorating Australia’s advocacy; from multilateral and bilateral strategies, to an increase in funding for civil society organisations, especially those in retentionist countries. Witnesses also offered useful suggestions for improving Australia’s messaging around our opposition to capital punishment.
In light of evidence received, this report makes recommendations that go towards focussing Australia’s international advocacy and dedicating additional resources to this work. Specifically, the report recommends the Australian Government develop, fund and implement a whole-of-government strategy that focusses our efforts on retentionist countries in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as our ally the United States of America. The recommendations propose overarching goals for the strategy, as well as concrete actions to focus Australia’s efforts.
The inquiry also facilitated an energetic discussion on the issue of drug trafficking and law enforcement, with many witnesses concerned about the number of people executed for drug-related crimes, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. As such, the report makes recommendations aimed at strengthening the safeguards currently in place to prevent exposing people to the death penalty as a result of police-to-police cooperation on transnational crime.
This report comes at a critical juncture in the movement for abolition. As Australia campaigns for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council for the period 2018-2020, we have additional opportunities for advocating for abolition around the world. If we do not wish to see a further increase in executions, as we have in 2015, we must continue to campaign in a strong and consistent manner to rid the world of this cruel practice for all time.