THE LEGAL profession has called on politicians to clearly reaffirm their opposition to capital punishment at all times not just here in Australia but also overseas.
In the wake of Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd’s backtrack from opposing death sentences abroad, legal groups have called for uniform leadership and have criticised a lack of clear direction on the government’s stance.
Australian Lawyers Alliance president, Ian Brown, told Lawyers Weekly that Prime Minister John Howard and the Opposition Leader both needed to oppose the death penalty unequivocally. “It is not good enough for Australian governments to publicly oppose the death penalty in relation to the Bali nine when they appear to support the use of the death penalty in the case of the Bali bombers or Saddam Hussein,” said Brown.
Brown argued that this double standard should be challenged, highlighting the inherent hypocrisy in the government’s position. “At the end of the day, you can’t straddle the fence on this particular issue, you either oppose the death penalty or you don’t, you cannot partially execute somebody,” he said.
According to Brown, the issue is black and white. “It’s not a matter of assessing the relative merits of the convicted person, the fundamental issue is: should any person be executed, killed by the state for committing a crime? It’s a very clear-cut question, the answer is either yes or no,” he said.
Law Council of Australia president, Ross Ray, said in a statement that he was “disappointed” that Rudd had retreated from shadow foreign affairs minister Robert McClelland’s assertion that if elected, Labor would adopt a principled, consistent approach to opposing death sentences. Ray commented that the Law Council “would unreservedly support” a uniform approach to opposing the death penalty — whenever and wherever imposed.
“This is a matter of principle. Adopting a position of vocal and absolute opposition to the death penalty should not be regarded as offensive to anyone,” Ray said.
Ray acknowledged that “consistent public opposition to the death penalty is desperately needed in this region. The hypocrisy of the current government’s silent consent to the execution of the Bali bombers is not lost on our Asian neighbours. The Australian Government can hardly expect that the last-minute rallying to save the lives of Australians will succeed when other executions are met with tacit approval”.
Celebrated human rights barrister Julian Burnside QC said: “the principle reason for opposing the death penalty is that it is premeditated murder by the power of the state. If that is wrong in Australia on moral grounds, then it is wrong everywhere, for all people at all times.” He argued that opposing the death penalty should be a universal, rather than selective endeavour.
“While Australia can’t force other countries to abandon the death penalty, we should at least speak with a consistent voice about our opposition to it, whether its people in Australia, Australians overseas or people in any country,” he said.
Illustrating what he suggested was the paradoxical nature of the government’s stance, Burnside said “when you take it through to its logical conclusion the government position would be: if a foreigner happened to be in Australia and committed a very serious offence it would be okay for us to execute that person because they are not Australian”. This sort of argument would clearly not have widespread support, Burnside said, so “why then do we sanction death sentences?”
Burnside said that ultimately the argument against the death penalty is based on “very basic human rights thinking” and argued that Australia has lost sight of the universality of human rights. “In Australia, unfortunately I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that if we acknowledge human rights, its not that we have them because we are nice, we have them because we are human. Human rights matter for everyone, including people we don’t like, including people like Saddam Hussein,” he said.
According to Burnside, this latest hypocrisy is just one more instance in the broader climate of the curtailing of civil rights in Australia. Burnside also highlighted that “every Western democracy has a bill of rights, except Australia”, which — despite ACT and Victoria penning state charters — has no federal Bill.
“I think all these things taken together add up to a fairly disturbing picture — part of it is what the legislation enables and part of it is the fragile grass which [Attorney-General Philip] Ruddock has on the notion of a fair trial,” he said.