October 10 was World Day Against the Death Penalty. Australia, along with many other nations across the world, marks this day by sending a clear and unequivocal message: We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and for all people. We are committed to its universal abolition, and we will pursue this through all forums.
This year, Australia proudly began its term as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Part of our platform for election was a strong commitment to the global abolition of the death penalty. Australia did not always hold this position, however. Our country’s experience of this weighty issue shows that it is possible to change course, and to act decisively and enduringly against this practice.
Just more than 50 years ago, Australia carried out its last state execution. Ronald Ryan had been serving time in prison for robbery when he escaped in December 1965. During the escape, a gun was fired, and the shot killed a prison warden. Ryan was recaptured, charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to death. He was hanged on February 3, 1967.
Ryan’s execution sparked nationwide protests. Over the following decades, Australian states and territories reconsidered the nature of this penalty, and ultimately removed capital punishment from their criminal justice systems.
In 2010, the Federal Government passed a law that prevents the death penalty from being reintroduced in Australia.
Australia’s rejection of the death penalty is part of a global trend. Today, roughly two thirds of all countries have abolished the death penalty in law and practice, but unfortunately, others continue to carry out executions.
In many ways, Ryan’s case typifies what is so wrong with capital punishment.
Firstly, no judicial system is free from error, and there is always an unacceptable risk that an innocent person will be executed. In Ryan’s case, there is some doubt that he fired the shot that killed the prison warden.
Since 1973, when the United States Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, more than 150 people on death row have been exonerated. While many of these people were cleared based on technological advances in DNA evidence, most were victims of miscarriages of justice – a simple but all too common failing of even the most advanced legal systems.
Secondly, the death penalty is used disproportionately against those from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds. Ryan was of the working class – his father was a miner, his mother a domestic servant. Many on death row simply do not have the financial capacity to access adequate legal representation.
Thirdly, the death penalty – and the lives of those awaiting execution – are too often a tool of politics. The death penalty regrettably remains a popular way for governments to show their societies that they are strong on law and order.
It takes brave, inspired leadership to abolish the death penalty, especially when public opinion polls appear to show support for it.
There are other reasons that the death penalty is abhorrent – it does not deter crime, it is objectively cruel and inhumane, and it denies an offender the possibility of rehabilitation.
For these reasons, Australia advocates against it. The journey to abolition is sometimes long and difficult, but every step is welcome. It is not always an easy discussion to have, but it is a vital one.
It is also timely. Across East Africa and beyond, nations that retain the death penalty have signalled a willingness to scrutinise or reconsider the practice.
Petitions for mercy have been granted. Courts have decided against its mandatory application. Draft legislation has proposed its repeal. Expert panels and task forces have sought views on its use. The number of voices calling for an end to the death penalty is growing, and we urge leaders to heed them.
We know that abolition may entail a gradual process. For some nations, an absolute end to the death penalty is within reach. For others, the next step may be to seek a reduction in its application, or perhaps just to ensure it is applied humanely.
All steps to end the death penalty take us into a more humane world. This can be difficult, but our history shows it is possible. Australia’s role, through bilateral relationships and in multilateral forums, is to engage whenever possible with countries that permit the death penalty, and advocate for these steps towards abolition.
Ms Chartres is the High Commissioner of Australia to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. She is also High
Commissioner-designate to Rwanda; and Ambassador-designate to Somalia and Burundi.