When it comes to the complex disputes surrounding capital punishment, it is important to avoid moral fallacies.
It is a messy situation. After months of haggling, eight inmates sentenced to death over drug trafficking were executed by a firing squad in Indonesia on April 28. As two of the convicts were Australian citizens, a global outcry ensued, culminating in the Australian government’s temporary withdrawal of its ambassador from Indonesia.
In the months before, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had repeatedly and publicly urged the Indonesian government to call off the executions. Some commentators say this was counterproductive as it put pressure on the new Indonesian administration, which had been accused of inconsistency in several political areas, to stick to its decision and carry out the executions.
In Southeast Asia, the death penalty continues to be state-sanctioned in four countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. After a ten-year-moratorium that lasted until April 2013, the Indonesian government took up capital punishment once again as a possible sentence for drug-related crimes. By doing so, Indonesia moved against the 21st century tendency in the region’s jurisdiction to apply death penalties less frequently. The argument went that Indonesia had become a “major drug trafficking hub,” and therefore, it needed this drastic sentence as a form of deterrence.
While the effectiveness of capital punishment in deterring people from committing crimes is highly controversial, arguments raised against the measure are manifold. The most often voiced objections include the possibility of killing innocent people, while simultaneously punishing their families, the penalty’s high costs in relation to life-long prison and the violation of international human rights law. In accordance, the Australian government called the executions of the so-called Bali Nine inmates “cruel and unnecessary.”
The proponents of capital punishment argue that the sentence does not violate international law, as it is within the rights of a sovereign state to execute its laws as it sees fit. For the above mentioned Southeast Asian countries, which all see drugs as a major threat to their societies, adhering to the death penalty in cases of drug trafficking is an adequate measure to balance the scales, as they argue it is their whole society that suffers under the actions of traffickers.
In the case of Indonesia, however, outside observers have highlighted the contradictory stance the national administration has showed, as it underlines its sovereign rights, while simultaneously pleading for the life of an Indonesian citizen facing capital punishment in Saudi Arabia. Thus, on the one hand, it is legitimate to criticize the Indonesian government for this obvious double-standard, but on the other, the Bali Nine case received much more attention precisely because it is part of the high number of cases where Australian citizens are in danger of being executed at present.
Whatever the arguments are, empirical cases all over the world, including places such as the United States and the Middle East, show that in the end, being for or against capital punishment might not only be a matter of facts, but primarily a matter of beliefs. It is hard to argue with official representatives who might feel cornered about the sometimes-abstract problems of state-sanctioned violence, and how the administration could be more productive if it does not authorize its authorities to kill its citizens or those of other countries.
Judging the existence of capital punishment in Southeast Asia is not an easy matter. There are many complex considerations, and no particular commentary or view can speak for everyone. For outside observers, it is necessary to look at the respective cases in the most holistic and objective way possible to avoid moral fallacies.
Ultimately, the death of humans by humans is never a good outcome. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated: “The death penalty has no place in the 21st century.”
Nonetheless, arguing these cases emotionally from a purely ideological standpoint, or even by insisting on available statistics, will not help. Rather, it will only escalate tensions and, in the end, limit the solutions available.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.