Friday, February 29, 2008

Moratorium on Death Penalty: Thailand

UN Resolution for a Moratorium on the Death Penalty

The UN in full session is like a huge oil tanker, ploughing through high seas and storms, only slowly adapting its great momentum to change course. Such a momentous change was the adoption of a resolution on 18th December last to suspend the death penalty world wide. The UN General Assembly was born out of the terrible experience of two world wars, the slaughter of millions, and the questioning of what had been thought to be a state of civilisation. Sixty years ago the UN proclaimed what we would now call a road map, ‘the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ a document of great simplicity but immense compass. Over those sixty years there has been some progress in achieving its aim of freedom and security, although progress in one area or place is often accompanied by regression elsewhere; war, famine, disease, senseless killing and cruelty remain the still, sad music of humanity.

But there has been progress in achieving the most fundamental of all its promises. The passing of a resolution on a moratorium on the death penalty, acknowledges that the words ‘Everyone has the right to life’ in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration, is now an achievable goal. Yet, the resolution limits itself to an expression of ‘deep concern’, asking that the death penalty be progressively restricted and the number of offences for which it may be imposed reduced. Such language of compromise and persuasion prevails, but the original strong mind of the Universal Declaration also rings out, ‘Establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty’. It is known that the formulation ‘Everyone has a right to life’ were the most contested words of the Declaration. While some wished to extend the words to outright prohibition of the death penalty, others wanted the legitimacy of the death penalty to be explicitly sustained. What we inherit is an incomplete phrase, whose meaning the resolution of 18th December has now further revealed.

Twice before, such a motion was introduced to the UN, but failed to reach a vote in the General Assembly. On this occasion, despite strong opposition, the motion advanced and the final vote tallied a majority of 104 votes in favour, 54 against, and 29 abstentions. The most heartening aspect of the vote was that 20 states that still have the death penalty voted in favour of the resolution. The stand of those opposing the motion is revealing. The US, the major ideological purveyor of the death penalty in the world, was uncharacteristically silent in the debate. This is probably due to signs of a coming ground change on the issue in the US where the legality of lethal injection is being strongly contested. It is also being realised that the cost of execution and adequate legal defence is more expensive than life imprisonment. China too, the major executioner in the world, was unwilling to engage in the debate and expose its legal system to public censure. The most virulent opposition to the resolution came from that world champion of human rights, Singapore, which asserted its right to execute whom it wishes, denying others the right to comment on its internal affairs. Strangely, this mini state which aspires to participate in every western economic, industrial, banking, and cultural practice, objects to the imposition of western standards supporting abolition of the death penalty. One may ask whether from the Singapore viewpoint the UN itself is too ‘western’ an institution. And if it is, does that make the right to life less valid?

The part played by Thailand in the debate was also inglorious. In a speech expressing opposition to the Resolution the Thai delegate echoed the language of Singapore, affirming the necessity of the death penalty as a deterrent. But also, when questioned by Italian sponsors of the Resolution he responded in words which reflect shamefully on this Buddhist Kingdom, saying that “the Thai Constitution has not been changed and still called for the death penalty, that some lives were not worth keeping and should be executed”. Meanwhile the Thai population is largely uninformed about world opinion regarding the death penalty and accepts the model of practice in the US, where a Thai team learned the craft of lethal injection. It is time for moral leadership from civil, political, and religious leaders to follow the recommendation of the United Nations General Assembly to accept a moratorium on executions, and to enter into an examination of a barbaric practice which is surely destined to vanish from the earth. The majority of the world’s nations have concluded that the death penalty is not a deterrent to serious crime, that it is not a proportionate punishment for drug crimes which form the largest number of capital crimes in Thailand, and that the occurrence of wrongful execution of the innocent is not avoided. The moratorium is intended to allow an opportunity to begin the process of reflection on capital punishment, to assess the evidence which has led the majority of the world’s countries to abolish it, and to discover the motivation within Thai religious and cultural traditions for a choice in favour of life. The assurance to future generations that ‘Everyone has a right to life’ will enhance the value of every life and emphasize that there are no useless people. It is time to begin. If not now, when?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Black Hole of Singapore

SINGAPORE - Tan chor Jin

Tan chor Jin is facing execution after his final appeal was rejected on 30 January. He was sentenced to death in May 2007 for murder after a trial his lawyer described as unfair. Tan Chor Jin was also kept in solitary confinement before his trial. There is little public debate about the death penalty in Singapore and murder carries a mandatory death penalty. Singapore also has one of the highest execution rates per capita in the world.

A justice system which has a mandatory death penalty is unjust. Such a system excludes consideration of extenuating circumstances.
Singapore has not signed the fundamental human rights treaties which define the implications of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Meanwhile, they declaim on their right to maintain the death penalty. What about the right to life? It is now the widely accepted interpretation of the right to life that the death penalty may only be imposed 'for the most serious crimes' which does not include drug offenses. To sign the particular treaties is to recognize that right, not to establish it. The right already exists. Singapore spokespersons may puff all they wish and point to the diminishing club of recalcitrant states to which they belong in maintaining the death penalty, but the concealed executions in Changi darken the name of their island.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Further Reverse on the Issue of Shackling

Under the heading 'Issue of Shackling', news was given below of the initiative by prisoners themselves to appeal against permanent shackling of all prisoners condemned to death, even of those whose cases are still under appeal. The courts have now ordered the removal of shackles of two Thai prisoners who took legal action. However, they are not allowed to go outside the prison cells to exercise with other prisoners. The first to take legal action against shackling was a non-Thai citizen. While his case was under consideration the courts ordered that his shackles be removed. However, although his plea is still under consideration by the court, he has been shackled again. In justification prison authorities cite his bad behaviour in having some sleeping tablets in his possession when he first came to the prison, a fault for which he was duly punished at the time by three days of solitary confinement. They also plead the danger of his escaping from the prison. May we again remind the prison authorities of the UN Human Rights Committee admonition that NO EXCUSE can justify this inhumane practice.

Death Penalty and the Autonomy of States

In Afghanistan a 23 year old student and journalist for a local newspaper, Sayed Parwez Kaambaksh, has been condemned to death for 'blasphemy'. The charge arises from an article which appeared on the Internet, claiming that men and women should be treated equally by Islam. He asked why a man could have four wives while polyandry was forbidden. The article was judged by the court to be insulting to Islam.
The sentence was denounced by the UN, and several human rights organizations, who pointed out that the defendant had even been denied legal aid during the trial, appealed to the President of Afghanistan to overturn the verdict. The Senate reacted by confirming the sentence and protesting against outside interference in the affairs of Afghanistan.
In the recent debate in the UN on a Death Penalty Moratorium, countries rejecting the Moratorium, notably Singapore, affirmed the right of their countries to practice the death penalty as they saw fit, condemning the proponents of the Moratorium for attempting to interfere in the affairs of their States. As in Afghanistan, so in Singapore!