Time for a global debate on the death penalty

Marc Zen is a One Young World Ambassador from Australia who is passionate about human rights, healthcare and LGBT rights. His blog discusses the executions of convicted drug smugglers in Indonesia, known as the Bali 9.

In the past week, the Australian government and opposition have been united in their condemnation of other nations’ use of the death penalty. This comes in the wake of the executions of two Australian citizens in Indonesia, ten years after being convicted of the crime of drug trafficking, despite multiple attempts by the Australian government over the last few months to achieve a stay of execution. Given these events, it is time to initiate an international conversation about the continued use of the most harsh and irrevocable punishment as an instrument of the law, starting here with One Young World Ambassadors.

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations after the end of the Second World War. It was produced by an international yearning for guiding principles to safeguard the fundamental rights and freedoms of people everywhere. Article 3 of the Declaration states clearly that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, thus cementing the state-sanctioned killing of another human being as a clear violation of human rights.

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Furthermore, it is a common misconception that the harsh and irreversible nature of the death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime, despite the fact that there is no evidence to support this claim. Crimes of all degrees of seriousness continue in countries that do and do not execute, exploding the myth that severity of punishment is directly correlated to a reduction in crime.

The very existence of any justice system is to maintain law and order. Therefore, it is a profound yet crucial realisation to come to that justice systems are flawed, just like any other manmade structure. The execution of a human being represents the ultimate, irreversible punishment from which no compensation can be made in the event of a mistaken conviction, such as in the 150 exonerations of death row prisoners that have taken place in the United States since 1973. This is highly important also for the fact that not all justice systems treat all citizens fairly, with many countries sentencing people to death after obtaining false confessions through torture.

This relates well to evidence from Amnesty International (2015) which suggests that the death penalty is often used as a weapon against the most vulnerable people in society, being those who already belong to marginalised groups. Discrimination in justice systems worldwide means that the penalty is most often applied to ethnic and religious minorities, as well as the poorest people in society who lack access to appropriate legal resources to adequately defend themselves.

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The two Australian citizens executed this week in Indonesia had demonstrated total rehabilitation and had spent their time in incarceration contributing to the Indonesian community. One had become an ordained Christian minister and the other an accomplished artist, both with qualifications studied and completed during their time in prison. This demonstrates both the effectiveness of the Indonesian justice system, as people convicted of such crimes could be rehabilitated so successfully, and the inherent needlessness of their deaths. Nothing has been gained from these executions and much has been lost, for both nations.

Some of you reading this may live in countries where the death penalty still exists, and may even support the practice. I would ask you to challenge the commonly-held assumptions about the efficacy of the death penalty, especially in light of the insurmountable evidence against it and its human cost. As One Young World Ambassadors, we can be at the forefront of challenging received opinions and facilitating debates. No matter what your opinion on the issue, hiding the debate behind a wall of silence is antithetical to the empowerment and inclusion that we stand for.

I believe that all executions must end, that countries remove this punishment from their law books indefinitely and that current death sentences be reduced the life imprisonment immediately because, as stated by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, the death penalty "has no place in the 21st century". But for this to change young people around the world must be engaged in conversation with law makers to end this form of punishment.

In 2014, there were 607 executions around the world. As of today, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty. There need to be more.

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