Wednesday, 10 October 2007

No Australian government will oppose terrorist executions

[Please note: long post]

Australia's response to the death penalty in Asia became part of the unofficial election campaign yesterday, with both major parties competing to show how many conditions they could attach to their "opposition" to capital punishment.

The issue hit the headlines after a speech on Monday night by Robert McClelland, the Australian Labor Party's foreign affairs spokesman, committing a future Labor government to a consistent stance opposing the use of the death penalty and to "shrewd diplomatic activism" within the region.

The speech was criticised for its timing, coming four days before the anniversary of the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. Three men in Indonesia currently face execution for organising the bombings after the final appeals against their death sentences were rejected in August and September.

The Australian Prime Minister and senior government ministers attacked the speech and claimed the Labor party proposed to use Australian diplomats to plead for the lives of the convicted Bali bombers.

On Tuesday opposition leader Kevin Rudd moved swiftly to distance himself from the speech and gave his spokesperson a humiliating public rebuke.

Mr Rudd said the speech was "insensitive" and a staff member in his office was being "counselled" for failing to raise concerns over a draft of the speech.

He said a future Labor government would not make diplomatic moves to argue for clemency in terrorist cases, but it would oppose the death penalty through multilateral channels at the United Nations.

Both the government and opposition said they would only intervene in individual cases involving Australian citizens facing execution.

McClelland's speech
Shadow foreign minister Robert McClelland addressed the Wentworth Human Rights Forum, giving a speech that had been cleared with the office of the opposition leader.

"Labor believes that supporting executions - even by a nation state - gives justification to all kinds of fanatical lunatics to take the lives of others in pursuit of their warped ideologies," Mr McClelland said.

"That is why, at the highest levels Australia's public comments about the death penalty must be consistent with policy. This is especially the case if we are going to tactfully and successfully drive a regional abolitionist movement."

Mr McClelland said a Labor government would launch a regional campaign against executions in the Asian region.

He criticised the Prime Minister for supporting "the executions of the perpetrators of the Bali bombings, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein" while also claiming "Australia opposed capital punishment".

He also said Mr Howard's inconsistency in the cases exposed Australia to claims of hypocrisy and undermined diplomatic efforts to spare the life of Australian citizen Van Tuong Nguyen, who was hanged in Singapore in 2005.

He said a Labor government would be consistent in its public comments on the death penalty.

Government condemnation
Prime Minister John Howard said the speech was an "extraordinary call by the Labor Party for the executions of the Bali Bombers not to take place".

He said the Labor Party's opposition to the death penalty was "an insensitive policy", and he highlighted other occasions when Mr Rudd had opposed executions.

"The idea that we would plead for the deferral of executions of people who murdered 88 Australians is distasteful to the entire community and I remind you that earlier this year, Mr Rudd, when Saddam Hussein was executed, expressed his continuing opposition to the death penalty imposed by other countries," Mr Howard said.

"We do not support the death penalty in Australia and my Government has consistently argued when Australians have faced the death penalty overseas for that penalty not to be applied.

"But what other countries do is ultimately a matter for those other countries, and particularly when people are under sentence of death for murdering Australians.

"I find it impossible myself, as an Australian, as Prime Minister, as an individual, to argue that those executions should not take place when they have murdered my fellow countrymen and women."

The Australian government's policy in recent years has been to claim that in principle it is 'universally and consistently' opposed to the death penalty, but in practice to argue only that Australian citizens should be spared the punishment.

In 2003 the Prime Minister told an interviewer that "everybody" would welcome the execution of Osama Bin Laden. More recently he expressed his satisfaction at the hanging of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and said the Australian government has no objections to the execution of the three Bali bombers.

Labor leader's reaction
Mr Rudd quickly attempted to neutralise reaction to his spokesman's comments, saying he would not use Australian diplomats to argue for clemency for terrorists and criticising the timing of the speech.

"I believe that the speech delivered last night was insensitive in terms of its timing," Mr Rudd said.

"I've indicated that to Mr McClelland this morning and he concurs with that judgement.

"When it comes to the question of the death penalty, no diplomatic intervention will ever be made by any government that I lead in support of any individual terrorist life."

He said he would only intervene on behalf of Australians facing execution overseas.

"We have only indicated in the past, and will maintain a policy in the future, of intervening diplomatically in support of Australian nationals who face capital sentences abroad."

Any campaigning against the death penalty would only be undertaken at the international level.

"On the wider question of the death penalty, the Liberal Party's policy, like Labor's policy, is identical, and that is our global opposition to the death penalty.

"In terms of the prosecution of that matter, that is best done multilaterally through the United Nations."

He did, however, later suggest that in order to build up a consensus against the death penalty over time he would "seek to engage regional states and other states in support of that proposition".

Past calls
In August 2006, the Labor party's shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon MP said Australia should take stronger action against the death penalty.

She said in a statement that Australia should "advocate more strongly" for its neighbours and allies to abolish the death penalty, and any method of execution was "inhumane, no matter what the crime".

"Australia needs to use its position internationally and in the region to abolish the death penalty universally," Ms Roxon said.

On 3 December 2005, the day after Van Tuong Nguyen was hanged, then shadow foreign minister Mr Rudd said there was "a lot that Australia can do" to help abolish the death penalty worldwide.

He said Australia should "get behind" European efforts in the United Nations "to put in every effort to abolish this form of punishment, once and for all, throughout the world, and for all time".

He also called for consistent opposition to the death penalty.

"It is important that our policy is consistent. Labor policy, like the Liberal policy, worldwide, is opposed to the death penalty.

"And whether we are talking about individuals in Iraq or Indonesia or elsewhere, our policy has to be consistent."

Related stories:
Australia: Rudd would oppose death penalty -- 24 June, 2007
Australia 'should act against death penalty' -- 03 August, 2006

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