News In Review: Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran died but the death penalty lives on

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WORDS || Harrison Howard

Earlier this year, twelve members of the Indonesian Police aimed their M-16’s at the chests of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. The shots rang out shortly after midnight on 29 April. In Australia, the move by the Indonesian Government to execute the duo was met with almost universal condemnation. For the first time in history the Australian ambassador was recalled. The Australian media went wild. And for a few weeks Chan and Sukumaran were household names – known not for their crimes, but for the actions of their executors, the Indonesian Government, which read to many Australians as a crime against humanity. But, like so many news-stories that dominate our lives for the blink of an eye, Australian discourse on death penalty ended as abruptly as it came. Surely all the furore and loudness meant something. Surely Australian and international criticism of the death penalty following the executions have propelled forth the argument for its universal abolition.

2015 has, internationally, been a mixed bag for the abolitionist cause. The beginning of 2015 gave cause for celebration amongst abolitionists. The Fijian Government in February decided to repeal the death penalty, effectively eliminating it as a practice from the Pacific region. Madagascar and the Republic of Suriname accompanied Fiji in abolition, raising the number of abolitionist countries to 101 — a clear majority over the twenty-two nations that still employ the death penalty. The Mongolian Parliament, Burkina Faso and South Korea have all announced the drafting of legislation aimed to eventually abolish the death penalty completely. Even in countries where the death penalty is strongly entrenched, movements to have it abolished have steadily grown over the last year. In the United States, 2015 saw Nebraska and Pennsylvania join the nineteen states that have all opted for abolition. And if the polls are correct US public opinion is steadily turning against the practice. Just recently, Pope Francis during his address to Congress condemned the death penalty – his address was met by a standing ovation by Republicans and Democrats alike.

On the other hand, the last year has seen a resurgence in use of the death penalty in certain regions, particularly Central and South-East Asia. For example, Saudi Arabia and Iran executed more people in the period from January to August of this year, than they did for the entirety of 2014. Across North Africa, Central Asia through to Pakistan and China, the rate of executions has been steadily increasing. The rising fear of terrorism and other perceived threats to national security in the region may help explain this trend. And with instability spreading from areas such as Libya, Yemen and Syria, to areas such as the Sinai Peninsula and western Turkey, this trend shows no signs of abating.

A number of countries have in fact chosen to reintroduce the death penalty. In December 2014, following a Taliban attack upon a school in Peshawar, Pakistan chose to lift its six-year suspension of the death penalty and has, as of August 2015, already executed 150 people. Singapore also lifted its suspension of the death penalty in 2012, and Sri Lanka along with Papua New Guinea plan to reintroduce the practice within the year.

So what does this mean for Australia? Australia finds itself in an odd geo-political position – caught between the Pacific nations to our east, who have universally abolished the death penalty – and to the north, the Asian continent, which executes more people than any other in the world. Starting at home, the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran solidified Australia’s view of the death penalty. Following the executions, polls done by the Lowy Institute for International Policy showed that seventy-one per cent of Australians thought that the death penalty should be universally abolished. In the same poll however, only fourty-two per cent of Australians supported the recall of Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia — representing a clear divergence between how Australians view the death penalty, and what they’re actually willing to do about it. What is clear is that the overwhelming majority of the Australian people, along with their Government, abhor the death penalty. What is unclear is how we as a nation will react when our citizens are again put before a firing squad. And, with nine Australians facing the death penalty in China alone, with Indonesia promising to execute a further 125 people, and with Papua New Guinea planning to reintroduce the death penalty – it’s only a matter of time before Australia faces this quandary again.

*Harrison Howard is a member of the Macquarie University Politics Society. More articles can be found at their website; mqups.com and Facebook page.