Thursday, 13 November 2008

Australia tries to reclaim principle

The Australian government has attempted to restore its credibility on the death penalty after the prime minister last month appeared to support the execution of the Bali bombers.

Ten days before the executions were carried out, prime minister Kevin Rudd said Australia was "universally opposed to the death penalty".

And hours after the three convicted terrorists were shot by firing squad, foreign minister Stephen Smith said Australia would support an upcoming moratorium resolution in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly.

However no senior member of the government has publicly said the men should not have been shot for the 2002 attacks which killed 88 Australians.

Lawyers acting for three Australians on death row in Indonesia criticised the government's silence on the executions, saying this selective approach would be detrimental to their clients' interests.

'Deserve the justice'
Rudd appeared to adopt his predecessor's double standards on the death penalty when he said on 2 October that they "deserve the justice that we delivered to them".

The following day he claimed the nature of that justice was a matter for the Indonesian justice system, but he would only say the government's policy was one of "general opposition" to the death penalty.

He was criticised for seeming to support the executions, and only speaking out against death sentences when Australian lives were at stake.

Media reports suggested government backbenchers later expressed concerns about the prime minister's equivocation on the issue.

With mounting speculation over the timing of the executions, Rudd was asked on Melbourne radio on 30 October a series of five questions about whether he approved the execution of terrorists, and the Bali bombers in particular.

His answers tried to tread a fine line by opposing the death penalty in the most general terms possible, while saying nothing that could be quoted as a direct criticism of the impending executions in Java.

He repeated that the government was "universally" opposed to the death penalty and twice said the government only intervened on behalf of Australian citizens.

He described the October 2002 attack as a "murderous, cowardly and callous act".

"But I’m not going to pretend to you ... that our policy on the death penalty has changed. It’s always been one of universal opposition."

Opposition -- but afterwards
Hours after the executions were carried out on 9 November, foreign minister Stephen Smith said the government would soon co-sponsor a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium.

"In the near future at the UN General Assembly we will be co-sponsoring a resolution calling effectively on a moratorium on capital punishment and that's been Australia's position for some considerable time," he said.

Some commentators reported this as a new development in Australian human rights policy in the wake of the executions. But in fact Australia has for many years co-sponsored UN resolutions opposing the death penalty, a fact which has not often been the subject of public discussion.

Smith did not say if Australia would do anything different at the UN in the coming weeks than last year, when it was one of 75 countries that co-sponsored the 18 December moratorium resolution.

Cautious welcome
Lawyers for the three Australians on death row in Indonesia welcomed Smith's comments, but criticised the government's silence on the latest executions.

Julian McMahon, part of the legal team advising Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, said he thought it "would have been better for us to stand up more clearly and speak more firmly and loudly in the region prior to the execution".

"To be pro-active if you like but the response after the execution has been exactly what I would have hoped for," he said.

"I just think that we should have been doing it consistently rather than just after the execution."

John North, who represents Scott Rush, said the government should consistently oppose the death penalty.

"They shouldn't try and cherry pick those that should be executed and those that should not," he said.

In another interview he said: "When the death penalty is hanging over the heads of young Australians there is no room for ambivalence."

1 comment:

Murray said...

Our government has been playing an embarrassing game of yo-yo with the death penalty recently.

Australia is already a signatory nation to a UN protocol which seeks to ban the death penalty internationally.

And PM Rudd really cannot pretend he was expecting Indonesian justice for the Bali bombers to mean anything but the firing squad. And mere hours after they were shot we are going to co-sponser a moratorium on the death penalty...

Amateur politics.