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Governments grapple with the death penalty

Graphic: Closeup of prison cell door

Just as one country scrubs the death penalty from its statute books, another adds a new offence carrying the possibility of capital punishment.

Papua New Guinea has announced plans to shelve its planned reintroduction of the death penalty.

Although the death penalty had not been used in PNG for more than 60 years, in 2013 the national parliament extended the range of crimes for which it could be imposed, including aggravated rape, robbery involving violence and sorcery-related killings.

The National Executive Council approved three modes of execution: lethal injection, firing squad and hanging. Since that time, 13 people have been held on death row.

However, on 4 March 2016 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Dr Eric Kwa, secretary-general of PNG's Constitutional and Law Reform Commission, told a law reform conference in Melbourne that the country would abandon its plans to impose the death penalty.

Dr Kwa said, the national leadership had accepted that the death penalty would not prevent the serious crimes it sought to deter, including violence against women.

In fact, Dr Kwa said he was now finalising a report for PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill recommending the death penalty be repealed from the country's statute books altogether.

However, in the north of the Asia Pacific region, South Korea's parliament has just passed a controversial anti-terror law that includes an offence for which the death penalty may be imposed.

Under the legislation, those who form a "terrorist organisation" can face capital punishment, life imprisonment or over 10 years incarceration.

While a number of countries in the Asia Pacific still employ the death penalty, there is an increasing trend for countries to institute:

  • A de facto moratorium on the death penalty, or
  • A reduction in the number of offences for which the death penalty could apply, and/or
  • The abolition of the death penalty.

In the past year, a number of APF members have strongly advocated for the abolition of the death penalty in their countries.

In February 2016, the APF secretariat provided evidence to an Australian federal parliamentary inquiry into international advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty.

At the global level, the issue was the topic of a side event on 23 March 2016, held to coincide with the current Human Rights Council session and the 29th annual meeting of the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

This year the APF will review and update the Advisory Council of Jurists' study on the death penalty, undertaken in 1999, to document current practice in the region.

Among other things, the review will look at which States retain the death penalty and for what crimes, as well as where exemptions or a moratorium exist and for what reasons these were implemented.

Once completed, the review will support APF members to advocate on the issue with their national governments, as well as provide opportunities for collaboration between APF members at a bilateral and a regional level.

Date: 15 March 2016

Image credits

  1. Closeup of prison cell door - APF/Michael Power