Friday, 31 October 2008

Execution wrong - even for terrorists

Comment by Tim Goodwin
This story was first published on ABC Australia's Unleashed. Read the debate on the story here.

After more than two years of delays and legal brinkmanship, it seems it is finally going to happen. In the coming days Indonesian firing squads will shoot the three men sentenced to death for organising the October 2002 Bali bombing. The bureaucratic wheels are turning to provide the time, the place, the personnel, the training, the equipment and the legal authority to kill three people.

Many in Australia and Indonesia will applaud the executions, looking to the firing squads to deliver revenge and a measure of emotional release. Some journalists will reach for that dubious cliche and ask whether the victims now have 'closure'. And their deaths will bring an end to the stream of heartless and absurd statements from the men who gained an aura of macabre celebrity from the media attention.

Undeniably these three men are criminals, whose actions had a shattering impact on the hundreds of people killed or injured and the thousands who cared for them. Undeniably the bombers deserve harsh punishment, both to protect society from what they may do again, given the chance, and to signal a collective outrage at their crimes. None of that is at issue.

But there are unsettling questions in the countdown to the executions. Is it ever acceptable for a government to kill convicted criminals in the name of society as a whole? Or is it justified in this case?

Here's an answer: execution is never justified. The death penalty is never an appropriate response to serious crime. This includes the Bali bombers. It is possible to condemn their crimes while also believing they should not be killed by the state.

Even if their executions deliver a sense of revenge, they represent a step that no government has the right to take. No government should carry out the coldly planned and delivered act of putting a human being to death in the name of justice. The enormity and the horror of these people's crimes will never be wiped away by their deaths, and the promise they destroyed can never be returned.

Over the past 30 years, the death penalty has increasingly been seen as a human rights issue. Under the key international human rights charters, every individual has certain basic rights such as the right not to be tortured and the right to life. In the words of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, "these rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person". They are not granted by our parents, our families, our race or the society around us. This is why murder is, among other things, a violation of human rights.

Because no government grants us these rights, no government has the power to take them away. Only where there is a direct or immediate threat to life are police, soldiers or individual citizens permitted to use lethal force. An overwhelming majority of countries have come to agree the death penalty is the ultimate violation of the right to life by a government.

The legitimacy of modern government rests on protecting their citizens, and ensuring the conditions for people to achieve their potential. It used to be argued that executions were necessary to protect communities from criminals and deter further crime. Both of these arguments are now threadbare, with modern prisons offering physical security and mounting evidence that the severest punishment does not deliver a greater level of deterrence against crime.

When it is applied to murder, there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the death penalty which destroys it as a symbol of a society's values. It is not possible for a government to demonstrate the supreme worth of human life by killing. Some claim the very seriousness of killing proves the importance of the innocent life the state is acting to avenge. But far from cancelling out the original crime, it instead places the state in the position of mimicking the killer's original decision that a particular person should no longer live.

The ethical dimensions of execution also need to be tested against the reality of death penalty systems around the world. It is easy to imagine the unremorseful criminal, tried in a perfect justice system where execution sends an unmistakeable signal to would-be criminals that they will receive the same punishment if they similarly offend. This situation does not exist anywhere in the world.

The firing squad and the scaffold are symbols of absolute state power, but also of infallible state power, and there is no such thing as an infallible justice system. There are cases where the defendant is certainly guilty, including the Bali bombing conspirators. However many cases are far from certain, which introduces the very real risk of error -- even the best justice systems in the world make mistakes. To accept that some people will be killed as a result of mistaken convictions is to accept that innocent people will inevitably die.

For a penalty that is supposed to deliver justice using the ultimate and irreversible sanction, this reality is simply unacceptable.

Even in the case of the guilty, it is not possible to reserve execution for offenders who have expressed no remorse for their actions. Showing mercy or allowing a prisoner to live is not a reward for their remorse. It is a statement about who we are, and what we value as a society.

The death penalty is ultimately about politics more than criminal justice. For all the talk of it providing greater deterrence against crime (which can't be demonstrated) or satisfying public opinion (when few governments allow a free and informed debate), it is used to show a government's determination to stand against the threat of personal crime. It is retained by countries that no longer carry out executions, because it sends all the right political signals to keep it on the books. In countries like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia it is also a very useful means of maintaining control over the broader population. It is no accident these countries are among the few that still carry out public executions.

We will wake up one morning soon to hear the three Bali bombers have been shot during the night. The sentences will have been carried out. There will be some grim satisfaction. Two governments will have proclaimed their resistance to terrorism. Three more people will be dead. And nothing else will have changed.

1 comment:

Leisha Atkins said...

Excellent article Tim.