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Australia Must Breathe New Life Into The Fight Against The Death Penalty In Asia

The death penalty is making an alarming resurgence in Australia's neighbourhood.

20/05/2016 10:15 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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Reuters
Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in a holding cell in Bali, Indonesia, in 2010.

The death penalty is making an alarming resurgence in Australia's neighbourhood as several Asian countries move forward with executions. Now is an opportune time for Australian officials to try to reverse this trend before it's unstoppable.

This week, Philippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte vowed to reintroduce capital punishment. The Philippines abolished the death penalty in 2006.

Today, [May 20] Singaporean authorities were expected to execute a 31-year-old Malaysian, Kho Jabing, who received a mandatory death sentence in violation of international fair trial rights. Hours before his execution, he was granted a stay of execution following a last minute appeal.

On May 11, Bangladeshi officials hanged Motiur Rahman Nizami following a conviction in Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal for alleged war crimes. Human Rights Watch has pointed out numerous shortcomings in the tribunal's proceedings, raising serious fair trial concerns.

On May 8, the Afghan government hanged six Taliban prisoners as part of President Ashraf Ghani's efforts to respond to critics who have demanded that the government take a harder line against the Taliban.

Indonesia is currently preparing a round of executions of 15 individuals, including five Indonesians and 10 foreign nationals, who have been convicted of drug offences.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an irreversible, degrading, and cruel punishment. International human rights law is clear: if used at all, the death penalty should be reserved only for the "most serious crimes." United Nations experts have stated that drug offences do not meet that criteria.

Last year, many Australians were appalled when two Australian men, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were among 14 prisoners executed by firing squad in Indonesia. The Australian government made representations at the highest levels but to no avail.

In the wake of this state-sanctioned barbarity, the Australian Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade launched an inquiry into Australia's Advocacy for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. This month, the committee released its report, "A world without the death penalty." The report makes 13 recommendations and acknowledges that Australia has traditionally been a strong advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.

However, the joint committee recognises that to be effective, Australia's advocacy against the death penalty needs to be "consistent and universal, and strongly encourages all members of parliament and officials of the Australia government to present a consistent, principled objection to capital punishment."

The report recommends that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade coordinate "the development a whole-of-government Strategy for the Abolition of the Death Penalty which has as its focus, countries of the Indo-Pacific and the United States of America." This is exactly in line with what Human Rights Watch and other civil society groups recommended to the committee.

Now that the report has been tabled, DFAT shouldn't wait to start implementing it. The lives of people on death row across the region hang in the balance. Australia should adopt and carry out the recommendations of the committee and urgently intervene with relevant countries to privately and publicly denounce past executions and oppose future ones.

As chair of the report's Human Rights Sub-Committee and Australia's Special Envoy for Human Rights, Philip Ruddock has made ending capital punishment a signature issue. He should make urgent representations to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Singapore to publicly condemn the executions.

Australia should work closely with the United Nations and other abolitionist countries to urge our neighbours to get rid of the death penalty once and for all.

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