The Pacific Must Be Free From The Death Penalty


The PNG Government’s brazen expansion of the death penalty last week flies in the face of international human rights norms and the growing global trend toward abolition. As a regional leader and member of the UN Security Council, Australia is obligated to take a stronger and more principled stance for human rights, including the abolition of the death penalty throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

In response to widespread international condemnation of a spate of barbaric killings of women accused of sorcery, last week the PNG Parliament took commendable yet long-overdue action by repealing the medieval Sorcery Act 1971. The Act punished practitioners of sorcery with up to two years' imprisonment and allowed murderers to mitigate penal sentences by alleging witchcraft was involved. However in practice the law disproportionately targeted women and had been used to justify the recent trend of brutal vigilante murders.

The same day, Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's Government passed a raft of self-described “draconian” measures to address PNG’s high rate of violent crime, including an expanded application of the death penalty.

PNG, a former Australian colony, reintroduced the death penalty for wilful murder by hanging in 1991 after Australia had abolished it in 1970, five years before independence. At least 10 people are currently on death row in PNG. However, no one has been executed there since 1954, 13 years prior to Australia’s last execution; Ronal Ryan in 1967.

PNG’s expanded death penalty regime will now apply to crimes such as rape and aggravated robbery. The new legislation also introduced five additional means of administering the death penalty, including electrocution, firing squad and asphyxiation.

While the repeal of the bizarre sorcery law is to be strongly applauded in a society where women are subject to alarming levels of domestic and sexual violence, replacing one barbaric act with an expansion of state-sanctioned murder has attracted further international condemnation, including from Foreign Minister Bob Carr, the UN Human Rights Commissioner and Amnesty International.

The inherent right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s life is the most sacred of all human rights. Enshrined in both international treaty and customary law, it is the cornerstone of humanity’s claim to “civilised life” and “progress”.

Capital punishment disposes of this fundamental right through state-sanctioned murder – intentional killing as punishment and deterrent for heinous crimes. The problem is, no evidence exists, nor ever has, that such a deterrent mechanism works. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary as referred to by Michael Hayworth of Amnesty International last week:

“A 2004 study on violent crime showed that US states with the death penalty had higher murder rates per capita than states without the punishment and that 27 years after abolishing the death penalty the murder rate in Canada had fallen by 44 per cent.”

Abolitionists say the risk of the state taking an innocent life far outweighs any justified use of the death penalty. As Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch communicated to the PNG Government in 2009:

“The intrinsic fallibility of all criminal justice systems assures that even when full due process of law is respected, innocent persons are sometimes executed … Executions are inevitably carried out in an arbitrary manner, inflicted primarily on the most vulnerable-the poor and the mentally ill.”

While the right to life is protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), capital punishment is not outlawed. In fact, Article 6.2 of the ICCPR states that the death penalty can only be imposed in countries which have not abolished it, against adults and only for the most serious crimes like murder. Article 6.6 also states that nothing in the Article shall be invoked to delay or to prevent the abolition of capital punishment by any State Party.

Related key elements of the ICCPR include the prohibition on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 7) and the right to a fair trial (Article 14). Other international human rights instruments which aim for abolition include: the second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, and the sixth and thirteenth Optional Protocols to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. PNG acceded to the ICCPR in 2008 but has not yet ratified the second Optional Protocol.

More than two-thirds of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Ninety-seven countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Another 43 either subscribe to the UN’s biennial call for a moratorium or have abolished it in relation to ordinary crimes. Fifty-eight countries still retain the power to commit state-sanctioned murder.

The last state-sanctioned execution occurred in our region was in 1982, in Tonga. PNG’s last execution was in 1954 and Australia’s in 1967. While the global trend towards abolishing the death penalty appears to be continuing in the right direction, as Hayworth identified last week, there has been a worrying regional resurgence in the last 12 months, namely in Indonesia, Japan, India and Pakistan.

The global trend away from the death penalty can be seen in the UN General Assembly’s biennial votes regarding the moratorium on the use of the death penalty: the 2008 vote recorded 106 States in favour, 46 against and 34 abstentions; in 2010 – 109 in favour, 41 against and 35 abstentions; the most recent vote on 20 December 2012 recorded 111 in favour, 41 against, with 34abstentions including PNG.

Civil society is of course very much involved in the pursuit of universal abolition. One of the leading global lobbyists is the World Coalition against the Death Penalty (WCADP), created in Rome on 13 May 2002 and comprising an alliance of more than 120 member organisations, mainly NGOs, unions and professional legal bodies.

Some governments have also taken strong action, such as the United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s “HMG Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty 2010-2015”. The strategy aims to increase the number of abolitionist/moratorium countries, and implement further restrictions on, and reductions in, the use of the death penalty. These goals are to be pursued through bilateral initiatives, the EU, and the UN.

The strategy states the UK favours abolition including because the death penalty: (i) undermines human dignity, has no evidential justification as a deterrent and any miscarriage of its use is irreparable and irreversible; (ii) limits assistance to retentionist countries in policing and security; and (iii) affects citizens abroad and extradition cases. The strategy also funds various projects, including legal challenges for prisoners on death row and importantly encourages diplomatic posts in retentionist countries to lobby host governments on abolition.

Australian aid and commerce play significant roles in the economic and socio-political life of PNG. In the next year PNG, Australia’s largest foreign aid recipient, will receive more than $507 million to fund programs addressing HIV aids, women’s issues and law and order. There is a separate policing exchange program with the Queensland Government, involving hundreds of police officers. Australia also injects millions of dollars into PNG via its often controversial Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC), which is financing a $19 billion ExxonMobil gas plant. This is to say nothing for the Federal Government's hugely controversial and questionable decision to outsource and offshore its international human rights responsibilities to detention centres on Manus Island.

As a former dependent territory and our closest neighbour, Australia has a special responsibility to ensure and assist the progress of PNG and its people. This includes taking a hard line on abolishing the death penalty and refusing to provide aid, police and security assistance while the death penalty is enacted.

It means investing in early intervention programs and addressing social disadvantage by channelling the spoils of the resource rich nation back into local communities instead of multinational entities. It means ensuring that Australian companies operating and investing in PNG act in accordance with international human rights norms including the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to insist that the PNG government do away with this unnecessary evil and ensure a capital-punishment-free South Pacific. The adoption of an Australian government strategy for abolition, similar to the UK's, would be a good first step.

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