12 February 2015
It is very likely that within the next couple of weeks two Australian drug dealers will be executed in Indonesia. There is an understandable sense of revulsion developing about that probability, leading to a renewed focus in this part of the world at least about the barbarity of the death penalty. A New Zealander is about to go on trial in Indonesia on drug-related charges and could well face the same fate, which gives added relevance to the outcome of the case of the two Australians.
While we do not, nor should not, condone their crimes – even they admit their guilt – we are as a civilised society repulsed by the fate that waits them.
But we are also a hypocritical society. Virtually every week, there is an execution or two in the United States – the victims often being of low intelligence, and the execution process botched and unnecessarily prolonged and painful – and we do not bat an eyelid. Our new best friend, China, routinely executes miscreants for all manner of offences, and we stay silent for fear of upsetting them. The Saudi Arabian regime beheads, stones, hangs or maims people after prayers each week, yet we honour the late King by flying our flag at half-mast on official buildings. There is no difference between each of these situations and the firing squads now being lined up in Indonesia.
Well, you might ask, aside from chest-thumping and expressions of outrage, what can New Zealand do, if anything, about all this? Is this not a matter of national sovereignty, been left for countries to deal with as they see fit, without the interference of well-meaning external busy bodies?
There are two courses of action New Zealand could follow. We should be prepared to speak out against the death penalty, as and when it is applied, on the principle that no state has the right to deprive its citizens of life. We should be strongly supporting the advocacy work of groups like Amnesty International and generally not giving succour to the death penalty states.
Over the next two years we have the advantage of being a member of the United Nations Security Council. As a small, independent state, generally recognised as having a good human rights record, we should be using that role to promote an international campaign for the elimination of the death penalty. In 1994, we were, as a member of the Council, able to bring a human rights focus to the resolution of the Rwandan crisis, being widely applauded and still remembered for that achievement. We have the credibility to be similarly effective, were we to take on the death penalty challenge during our current term.
It will be too late for the Australians in Indonesia and for others immediately similarly threatened, but being part of a successful international campaign for the abolition of the death penalty, however idealistic and impractical it may seem, is a worthy goal to strive for. It would be great to see New Zealand pick up the challenge.