Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The wrong signal for Asia’s firing squads

Comment by Tim Goodwin

When he was opposition leader, Kevin Rudd was derided by the government for his 'me too' strategy in the 2007 election campaign, after he promised to implement several Coalition initiatives.

The strategy successfully neutralised areas of government advantage, clearing the air for Labor to focus on key areas of difference such as climate change.

While human rights barely figured in the campaign, it was expected a Labor government under Rudd would strike a more progressive path, albeit within the limits of his socially conservative outlook. And in the main it has done so, making changes from abolishing temporary protection visas to legislation removing commonwealth discrimination against same sex-couples.

As Attorney-General Robert McClelland said in his prepared speech for a conference at the Melbourne Law School last Friday: "I think it is fair to say that Australia is 'back in business' when it comes to human rights."

In one critical area of human rights policy, Kevin Rudd has been pursuing business of his own. His takeover of coalition policy on the death penalty was slower than the earlier acquisitions, but no less successful.

Last week he took full control of John Howard's position and committed to the double standards that will dog him as they dogged his predecessor. This hypocrisy will undermine the Rudd government’s efforts to save the lives of Australians facing cruel execution overseas.

"Deserving" to die
On Perth radio last Thursday, the prime minister reacted to the latest reprehensible claims of the three Bali bombers that they were "holy warriors" who had no regrets about the October 2002 bombing which killed 202 people.

He condemned the men, who currently await execution, and said they "deserve the justice that we delivered to them". The following day he said the nature of that justice was a matter for the Indonesians and their justice system.

He claimed the government's policy was still one of "general opposition" to the death penalty, but the damage was done. No amount of "general opposition" will be meaningful in the face of specific support for particular people to be shot dead.

The Prime Minister's comments on the issue over two days were vintage Howard. Signal your support for an execution, say you don't support the death penalty in Australia and will only intervene in the case of Australians under sentence of death, and claim in general terms to be opposed to the death penalty.

Me too, business as usual.

Rudd has even adopted his predecessor's tactic that the penalty is a matter for the Indonesians. Obviously that is true, but it clearly signals Australia has no objection if that penalty is death.

Howard used this line many times to support executions in Indonesia, the United States and Iraq. The idea we would agree with a penalty simply because it was part of another country's legal system showed a soft spot for post-modern cultural relativism that he never betrayed in his speeches on education and history.

A gradual retreat
In Howard's case, his comments on the death penalty were more a matter of clarifying his position, inconsistent as it was. In Rudd's case, it has been a slow retreat from his rhetoric in opposition.

In October 2005, in the wrenching lead-up to the hanging of Australian citizen Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore, as shadow minister for foreign affairs he addressed parliament in ringing tones. Rudd told members they were speaking to a clemency motion because they held "one fundamental human value to be true, and that is the intrinsic dignity of all human life".

"For our policy to be credible, we must apply it universally," he said. "We must be credible in our opposition to capital punishment as a matter of policy wherever it occurs, whether in the United States, China or Singapore."

The day after Van Nguyen's execution, Rudd again stressed it was important our policy on the death penalty was consistent. He said "whether we are talking about individuals in Iraq or Indonesia or elsewhere, our policy has to be consistent".

Rudd, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Minister for Foreign Affairs Stephen Smith have repeatedly said the Government would only intervene in cases involving Australian citizens.

This would be fine, if it was only a comment about when Australia makes diplomatic or political representations. But in practice it seemed to mean the Government would only declare a death sentence was inappropriate if an Australian was involved.

Now that Rudd has indicated his satisfaction the Bali bombers will get what's coming to them, he has effectively said there are times when the death penalty is justified. He is giving a nod and wink to Indonesia to execute the bombers, while arguing only Australian citizens should be spared that punishment.

Agreement and hypocrisy?
But he is taking us down one of two dead-ends. One is the argument that Australia and many Asian countries actually agree on the fundamental position that some people, and some crimes, deserve execution. All that is left is to politely disagree on where to draw the line.

The other is the more dangerous road of hypocrisy, where all representations from the Australian government are dismissed as double standards and special pleading.

Asian countries are sensitive to being lectured by western governments, but they are just as sensitive to the taint of hypocrisy in the positions taken by those same governments.

If Australia took a consistent position on the death penalty, it would not be committing itself to intervening in every case, including sending in diplomats to argue for the lives of terrorists who killed our people. And it is not megaphone diplomacy to state what Australia believes, as a matter of official policy.

Simply taking, and defending, a principled position would be a step forward, and would give Australia the moral credibility to argue for the lives of its own citizens.

Both Howard and Rudd have been trying to walk both sides of the issue, courting the part of the electorate that supports the death penalty, while arguing they haven't abandoned a long-standing and bipartisan human rights policy.

My message to the prime minister is this: it isn't possible. This sort of populism at home will backfire in the region.

If the government's highest priority is saving Australian citizens from the noose and firing squad in Asia, which it should be, its hypocrisy will only undermine these efforts. As it has in the past, this inconsistency will put Australian lives at risk.

Is it too much to expect the Australian government to have a view that no execution is acceptable, and to say it out loud when asked?

Related stories:
Australia: Rudd supports Bali executions -- 02 October 2008
Australian government reminded of death penalty opposition -- 23 September 2008
Australia defends selective appeals for life -- 16 August 2008
'Only Australians' should be spared execution -- 06 January 2008
No Australian government will oppose terrorist executions -- 10 October 2007
Australia: Rudd would oppose death penalty -- 24 June 2007
Australia 'should act against death penalty' -- 03 August 2006

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One month before the federal election, Kevin Rudd said he would work with the European Union and the United Nations to abolish the death penalty across the world. Since becoming the new prime minister of Australia, we have been dudded by Kevin DUDD over this promise!