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The case for abolition of the death penalty

  • The journey to abolition is sometimes long and difficult, but each step counts. The removal of the mandatory application of the death penalty in Malaysia would be a significant step along this road.

By H.E. Andrew Goledzinowski

Abolition of the death penalty in Malaysia is a highly contentious issue – with strong views on all sides.

Australia gets it. We get it, because we too grappled with the balance between public opinion and the global trend towards abolition of the death penalty.

The Australian Government opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, for all people. But arriving at this point was a much more recent and politically challenging journey than many care to admit. On this World Day Against the Death Penalty, let me share Australia’s experience with abolishing the death penalty.

Our last execution was Ronald Ryan in 1967 in the state of Victoria. Our last state to abolish the death penalty was New South Wales in 1985 - despite our first state to abolish the death penalty, Queensland, doing so in 1922. That’s a 63 year process to take the death penalty off the books throughout Australia. In fact, it wasn’t until 2010 that the Federal Government passed a law that prevents the death penalty from being reintroduced in Australia.

It is important to know that the Australian public did not support abolition of the death penalty during the period it was progressively being abolished. But successive state governments removed it anyway. Abolition can be a decision based on courage, and on the conviction that governments must lead from the front.

Public opinion appears to have followed – not led – the decisions of our political leaders. According to Roy Morgan Research, when Australians were asked in 1947 ‘should the penalty for murder be death or imprisonment?’, 67% of respondents chose the death penalty. This dropped to 23% by 2009 (the most recent iteration of this survey).

But, we also know that while there has been a general decrease in support for the death penalty, the Australian public’s views can shift depending on the crime and level of sympathy for the individuals convicted. Widespread political support for abolition means that such temporary shifts are weathered.

The arguments for abolishing the death penalty are well known, but are worth repeating.

First, the death penalty is objectively cruel and inhumane.

It is also deeply flawed.

This is because there is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty deters crime.

It is irrevocable – and since no judicial system is completely free from error, there is always risk an innocent person will be executed.

And, very importantly, it is unfair – it is used disproportionately against people from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds.

Finally, it denies the possibility of rehabilitation.

But there is a very practical argument for abolishing the death penalty – one that is often overlooked. If Malaysia were to abolish the death penalty, there would be an advantage to tackling crime, especially drug crime.

The Australian Government’s position is that government cooperation needs to take into account our opposition to the death penalty. Our government agencies are limited in the assistance they can provide Malaysia for crimes where the death penalty might be imposed. This means we can sometimes find ourselves in the situation where we have information that would assist Malaysia in investigating crime - but we cannot share it. Were Malaysia to take the death penalty off the table, this would change.

The journey to abolition is sometimes long and difficult, but each step counts. The removal of the mandatory application of the death penalty in Malaysia would be a significant step along this road.

(H.E. Andrew Goledzinowski is the Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia. Follow him on Twitter.)

10 October is World Day Against the Death Penalty.

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