Page 4195 - Week 13 - Wednesday, 16 November 2005

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There are 16 Australians currently facing the death penalty overseas in prisons in Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and Kuwait. Most of these Australians have been charged with drug offences. Four have been convicted and sentenced to death and the remainder have either been charged and are awaiting trial or are appealing their sentences. Most notable at present is Van Nguyen, who, it is expected, will be executed in Singapore in just a few weeks. Despite Australia’s extensive appeals, the Singaporean authorities have refused to show clemency.

The Bali nine, who were dramatically arrested in Bali earlier this year carrying a total of 11.25 kilos of heroin, have also featured widely in the news. These nine Australians face trial on 11 October and, if convicted in the next few months, will face the death penalty.

The number of Australians facing the death penalty overseas should not be surprising given that, at least legislatively, the death penalty is still quite common around the world. In total, there are 76 countries and territories that retain and continue to impose the death penalty. There are 85 that have abolished it for all crimes, 11 that have abolished it for all but exceptional crimes and 24 that can be considered abolitionist in practice, not having imposed the death penalty for the past 10 years.

It has been 38 years since Australia staged its last execution. This occurred in Melbourne in February 1967, when Ronald Ryan was hanged for shooting a prison guard during an escape attempt. This event was a turning point for capital punishment in Australia and led to some of the largest public protests ever seen in Australia. Pleas were made from all parts of the community, from the public, media, church leaders, prominent Liberal and Labor Party members, trade unions and university groups. As a result, the commonwealth, along with all other Australian states and territories, formally abolished the death penalty and for decades has condemned its use against Australians and non-Australians convicted of crimes overseas.

This commitment has been consistent with Australia’s obligation under the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia acceded in October 1990 and which, at present, 87 nations and territories have either signed or ratified. Article 1 section 2 of this protocol commits Australia to take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty.

Significantly, while Australia has acceded to the protocol, it has not yet been incorporated into Australian commonwealth domestic legislation and, as such, is not enforceable. At the time of the accession it was the opinion of the then foreign minister, Gareth Evans, that the protocol simply reflected the current abolitionist state of affairs in Australia and it was therefore not necessary to enact legislation to incorporate the protocol into domestic legislation.

As such, for the past 10 to 15 years Australia has more or less advanced the spirit of the protocol by maintaining a principled opposition against the use of the death penalty. In doing so, Australia has also contributed to the purpose of the protocol to ensure the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights throughout the world.

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