By the Hon Philip Ruddock, Australia’s Special Envoy for Human Rights
Sadly, thousands of people were executed last year by the 56 countries that retain the death penalty. Worryingly, the number of executions carried out each year is increasing, even while the number of countries that impose the death penalty declines.
The deaths of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran on a prison island in Indonesia in April 2015 were a harsh reminder to us all that the death penalty is very much a reality in our world.
I attended the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Oslo in June, along with the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, and officials from DFAT. This year, Australia was proud to co-sponsor the Congress for the first time.
Australians were prominent, with representatives from organisations such as Reprieve Australia and the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions. It was encouraging to see so many representatives from countries that retain the death penalty, including from our region.
Amid the roundtables, workshops and debate, there were some small victories. A number of retentionist countries made commitments to progress abolition. Mongolia and Guinea committed to formally abolish the death penalty from their criminal codes this year.
There is a long way to go and the path to abolition is not always easy. Australia carried out its last execution in 1967, but the death penalty existed in Australian legislation until 1985. It was not until 2010 that Australia formally legislated to ensure the death penalty cannot be reintroduced.
As Australia’s experience shows, abolition requires dedicated leadership, often in the face of public support for the death penalty. For some countries, the most effective way to see progress is through a staged approach – removing the death penalty’s mandatory application, or reducing the number of crimes that can attract a death sentence. Australia encourages these small steps as a valuable start towards eventual abolition.
The Congress also gave me an opportunity to talk about the recent Parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty, which I chaired. The inquiry recommended ways Australia could ensure its anti-death penalty advocacy is strong and consistent, particularly in our region and in the United States. Watch this space for further updates.
It is clear that the death penalty is cruel and inhumane. It does not allow for rehabilitation and cannot be reversed if there is a miscarriage of justice. There is no evidence that it has a deterrent effect. It is disproportionately meted out to minorities and the poor. Some countries execute children, pregnant women and the mentally impaired. And the death penalty is still imposed for crimes which international law does not define as ‘most serious’, such as drug offences. Australia believes the death penalty really has no place in the modern world.
Australia’s Special Envoy for Human Rights
The Hon Philip Ruddock was appointed Australia’s first Special Envoy for Human Rights in February 2016. He served forty-three years as a member of the Australian Parliament – the second-longest serving parliamentarian in Australia’s history – and is a former Immigration Minister and Attorney-General. You can hear Mr Ruddock discuss human rights and the death penalty in a conversation at the Wheeler Centre.
- Statistics: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2016/04/death-sentences-executions-2015/
- 6th World Congress: http://congres.abolition.fr/en/
- Australian Human Rights Commission: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/
- Reprieve Australia: http://reprieve.org.au/
- Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions: http://www.asiapacificforum.net/
- Death penalty inquiry: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/Death_Penalty
- Wheeler Centre interview: http://www.wheelercentre.com/broadcasts/the-fifth-estate-philip-ruddock
Communications and Parliamentary Branch at the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade