OPPOSITION foreign affairs spokesman Robert McClelland was dead right when he suggested that Australians should not support the execution of the Bali bombers. Not because their crimes are not heinous in the extreme. They are. But there are two other compelling reasons. First, opposition to the death penalty is national policy. It has been abolished throughout Australia and is the formal policy of both the Labor and Liberal parties.
And in 1991 Australia ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with its “international commitment to abolish the death penalty”.
This means that Australia’s official position is that no one should be executed, regardless of skin colour or nationality, who did the crime, what the crime was, where it was committed or whether there are popular demands for vengeance.
If we start allowing for exceptions on any of these matters, then we are not opposing the death penalty but endorsing it. Unfortunately, endorsing the death penalty seems to be our Government’s covert position.
We say very little against the death penalty in international forums, according to the UN spokesman on the death penalty, Prof Philip Alston, of New York University.
Our major trading partners, China and the US, receive no criticism from us for being among the world’s top executioners and we have long been quietly content for Indonesia to execute Indonesians.
But it goes further than that. Our Prime Minister has said on talkback radio that executing Bali bomber Amrozi (pictured above) was “appropriate”, and that he could not understand why anyone would think it be “barbaric”.
“I find it impossible myself,” he has also said, “to argue that those executions should not take place.”
Even more egregiously, Peter Costello has equated opposition to the death penalty with support for the Bali bombings.
“Why anyone would lobby for clemency is beyond me,” he said, implying that opponents of execution were somehow pro-terrorism.
Their other favourite line is that execution is an internal matter for other countries, as if Australia never objects to what happens internally in countries such as Myanmar, Zimbabwe or East Timor.
And now it seems that even Kevin Rudd is giving them succour by carpeting McClelland.
The problem is that suggesting that the death penalty is OK for terrorists such as the Bali bombers opens the door for arguments that drugs offenders are just as bad, as many Asian governments claim, rightly or wrongly.
More significantly, however, if we are not active in opposing the death penalty, but raise it only when one of our citizens is facing death, we seem inconsistent, even hypocritical.
That leaves us arguing from “special pleading” and that Australians should somehow be exempt from the law that applies to others, simply because they are Australians.
That sort of unprincipled policy differentiation sure won’t fly in South-East Asia.
Malaysia has made this clear with executions of Australian drug offenders. So did Singapore in 2005 when it hanged drug trafficker and Australian citizen Nguyen Tuong Van.
Singaporeans pointed to support by Australian leaders for the execution of the Bali bombers.
There is no doubt the crimes of the Bali bombers are horrific and that that they have caused great suffering, as well as causing the deaths of 88 Australians.
But there is also no doubt that Australian support for the execution of the Bali bombers weakens our capacity to argue against the execution of Australian citizens, including the six of the Bali 9 who have been sentenced to death.
Like it or not, the futures of the Bali 6 are now tied closely to the future of the Bali bombers.
Professor TIM LINDSEY is director of the Asian Law Centre in the Law School at the University of Melbourne