Monday, May 18, 2015

Why no outcry over death penalty in the US?

When the Indonesian government executed two Australian drug runners it was big news, but when an United States court announced the death penalty for the Boston bomber, the media and the politicians had moved on.

Has the Australian government, the Catholic Church or others lodged a complaint with US authorities?

I do not doubt the principled position taken strongly by politicians and the media over the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. To the contrary, I ask the question because the issue of the death penalty cannot be forgotten while the latest political kerfuffle takes centre stage in Canberra and the death penalty issue subsides for the time being.

Needless to say, the next case after Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran may not be far away.

A federal jury in the US has sentenced Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev​ to death. For some that may raise issues from an Australian perspective. Do we really think it makes any difference if an execution involves an Australian citizen or not? And, given the possibility of extremists operating in our region, does it matter if the perpetrator fails to seek forgiveness?

Maybe it's time for some introspection, a general discussion within the Australian community and some bipartisan discussions at the political level on how the government will handle similar issues in the future.

Understandably, discussions on the death penalty can be highly emotional. Anybody listening to the media recently would think that all Australians are opposed the death penalty. However, a Morgan poll taken in late January, showed that 52 per cent were in favour of the death penalty for those convicted overseas for drug offences. Of Australians, a larger majority (62 per cent) said the Australian government should not do more to stop the execution of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, while 38 per cent said the Australian government should do more to stop the execution.

I understand that on two separate occasions in the weeks leading up to the execution, MPs raised their concern in the party room that the government had taken too strong a line with the Indonesians. Their concern was not surprising. Public support for the death penalty was about 80 per cent  in the 1970s, so even if public opinion is likely to slowly move away from the death penalty, it will be divided for a long time yet. In those circumstances, rather than trying to keep supporters of the death penalty out of the public discussion, it would be wise to encourage more forums to debate the issues. And this should be a task not so much for the government but the churches and other community organisations.

However, the government should consider how it will handle the issue in future.

The approach taken on behalf of Chan and Sukumaran was unquestionably a new approach for the Australian government. I don't see that the government can take a less active role in the future for drug smugglers. It is certainly possible that extremist terrorists operating in Indonesia with Australian citizenship could in the future also face the death penalty.

The Indonesian president is not about to abandon his policy promise to remain strongly in support of the death penalty for drug runners. Therefore, another execution may be even more difficult than the recent situation. I do think that the Indonesians failed badly in handling the situation, and these matters should be discussed with them at the diplomatic level. At least we have a starting position; both countries want to maintain our relationship. I would also say that we must make abundantly clear that we respect Indonesian sovereignty, including the right to make decisions with which we disagree.

The US also don't like be told how to run their own country.

Views are strong, as demonstrated by the US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch who said of the Boston bomber: "The ultimate penalty is a fitting punishment for this horrific crime and we hope that the completion of this prosecution will bring some measure of closure to the victims and their families". Many in the US will agree with her.

The Boston bomber used pressure-cookers stuffed with gunpowder taken from fireworks. Glued all over them were ball-bearings and nails, shrapnel designed to cause as much carnage as possible. The killing and the maiming was shocking. And when asked, the bomber said he couldn't stand to see the US government "go unpunished". He showed no remorse and wrote: "We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all".

I hope we never face this situation in Australia, but if we do the application of reason and humanity is what we will need more than ever. 

Peter Reith was a Howard government minister and is a Fairfax columnist.


No comments:

Post a Comment