By Kirsten Han
Where is Southeast Asia’s War on Drugs going? Is it even justified?
Those were the questions the opening plenary of the first Asian Congress on the Death Penalty sought to answer on Thursday morning in Kuala Lumpur.
Southeast Asian nations are at the vanguard of countries that have the death penalty for drug offences, ostensibly because of a tough stance on drug trafficking and abuse. Southeast Asian leaders often assert that capital punishment is necessary to act as a deterrence against drug-related crimes, and therefore crucial in keeping cities safe and societies protected.
This argument has been used often by Singapore’s own political leaders, and was most recently heard from Indonesian President Joko Widodo as he came under fire for a spate of executions in Indonesia.
Yet this line of thinking is not a commonly-held belief around the world. Dr Rick Lines, Executive Director of Harm Reduction International, pointed out during his presentation that countries that retain the death penalty for drug offences form a tiny majority: out of the 92 states in the world that have the death penalty, only one in three extend it to drug offence. One in eighteen are considered “high application” states, which refers to countries that actively and consistently execute people as part of the justice system. Singapore is considered a high application state.
“For most retentionist states, laws on the death penalty for drugs are a product of – and directly linked to – the modern drug control treaty regime and the global ‘War on Drugs’,” Dr Lines said.
This War on Drugs rhetoric has taken firm root in Southeast Asia. Ricky Gunawan, Director of Lembaga Bantuan Hukum (LBH) Masyarakat – which provides legal aid for people in need in Indonesia – said that the strength of the belief in the dangerous nature of drugs meant that politicians could easily solicit public support and sympathy simply by invoking the fight against drugs.
Arguments against capital punishment that invoke international treaties therefore fail to gain traction, as people are now far too committed to the concept of drugs as harmful, hateful substances that need to be eradicated whatever the cost, he added.
Describing Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore – all countries that have the death penalty for drug offences – as “brothers and sisters”, Gunawan hoped that movement on the death penalty in one country would have a knock-on effect on others.
Yet not all changes are necessarily for the better. Human rights lawyer M Ravi described the issues still associated with Singapore’s mandatory death penalty regime: despite amendments allowing judges to choose between death or life imprisonment with caning in certain cases, power continues to rest in the hands of the prosecution, who – either through the charges they bring before the court or their decision whether or not to grant a Certificate of Cooperation – are able to determine whether an individual lives or dies. The lack of prompt access to legal counsel further disadvantages an accused person.
Matilda Bogner, Regional Representative for South East Asia from the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, had earlier in the session reiterated the UN’s call for countries to impose a moratorium on all executions with a view to complete abolition, yet Professor Franklin Zimring from the School of Law of the University of California, Berkeley warned against the dangers of being satisfied with de facto abolition.
De facto abolition means that the state will no longer execute individuals, but that capital punishment will continue to exist in the country’s legislation. Although this is easier to achieve than pushing governments to completely abolish the death penalty, the continued existence of the death penalty in the law means that governments could potentially return to executions if it becomes politically expedient for them to do so once more.
“De facto is only de facto as long as powerful governments participate in continuing that status,” he said, arguing that governments used the death penalty not because it was a necessity, but because it was a political tool. For example, he asserted that the recent spate of executions in Indonesia had more to do with President Widodo giving a show of strength, than any real belief in the effectiveness of capital punishment in relation to drug crime.
Held on the 11 and 12 of June, the Asian Congress of Death Penalty brings together activists, lawyers, parliamentarians and academics to network and discuss pertinent issues related to the abolitionist movements around the world. Organisers say that the event has attracted about 300 participants from 30 countries.
Note: The writer is a founding member of We Believe in Second Chances, a Singapore-based campaign to abolish the death penalty.