Why World Day Against the Death Penalty matters in Australia

It has been 56 years since the last person was executed in Australia and almost 40 years since the last death sentence was given by an Australian court. The death penalty has been abolished in every Australian jurisdiction, and the federal parliament passed legislation in 2010 to ensure that it can’t be reintroduced anywhere in Australia.

Given this, does the fact that today, 10 October 2023, is the 21st World Day Against the Death Penalty have any continuing relevance for Australia?

We would suggest that it does, for two key reasons.

The first is that the universal abolition of the death penalty continues to be a key human rights issue, and Australia’s continued global leadership is strategically important.

Australia’s opposition to the death penalty has become an express part of our global human rights advocacy. Australia’s strategy for abolition of the death penalty, released in 2018, reaffirms that Australia ‘opposes the death penalty in all circumstances for all people’ and commits Australia to pursuing the universal abolition of the death penalty.

The reality is that the use of the death penalty has been increasing. Amnesty International recently reported that recorded executions reached a five-year high globally in 2022, with 883 people known to have been executed across 20 countries. That number reflects only confirmed judicial uses of the death penalty, and the actual number of executions is likely to be significantly higher.

At the end of 2022, an estimated 28,282 people around the world were facing death sentences. Fifty-five countries still use the death penalty, with the highest numbers of known executions in 2022 taking place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United States.

We should be particularly concerned about the way that the death penalty is being both imposed and carried out. For example, one year after the death in custody of Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, Iranian authorities have reportedly imposed death sentences on at least 26 individuals in connection with the subsequent protests and seven individuals have been executed. They included Mohammad Mehdi Karami, a 22-year-old karate champion, who was executed after reportedly being given less than 15 minutes to defend himself in court.

The UN Human Rights Commission’s fact-finding mission on Iran has suggested that these penalties ‘are being imposed following legal proceedings that lack transparency and fail to meet basic fair trial and due process guarantees under international human rights law’.

In the US, the Death Penalty Information Center labelled 2022 ‘“the year of the botched execution” because of the high number of states with failed or bungled executions’. A shortage of lethal-injection drugs led Idaho to pass a law in March this year restoring the use of firing squads in executions. In August, the Alabama attorney-general confirmed that the state intended to carry out an execution using nitrogen hypoxia. This method kills the prisoner by forcing them to breathe pure nitrogen. It has been described as ‘a human experiment’ because it has never been used before in a judicially ordered execution.

Australia’s continued leadership in this area is strategically significant given that the list of countries around the world that still use the death penalty includes some of our key allies and regional neighbours. Examples include the US, Japan, Singapore and Indonesia. The practical reality is that the death penalty is an issue that needs to be carefully navigated by our law enforcement agencies as part of their routine interactions with retentionist neighbours and allies. For this reason alone, it is not an issue that we can ignore.

The second key reason that World Day Against the Death Penalty continues to matter in Australia is that we should never risk taking human rights for granted.

We can’t simply assume that future generations of Australians will automatically be abolitionist, or that they will understand why Australia’s opposition to the death penalty has, for so many years, been ‘bipartisan, multipartisan, unanimous, principled, consistent and well known’.

History teaches us that when it comes to human rights, progress can be reversed and hard-won rights and freedoms can easily be lost. We need to constantly renew and strengthen our commitment to human rights and freedoms, and make sure that the generations that follow are left in no doubt about why these things matter.

When it comes to the death penalty, we need to ensure that Australians continue to understand exactly why the death penalty should never be used. This includes that it is an irrevocable punishment and for that reason alone has no place in an inevitably imperfect criminal justice system. It is too often used disproportionately against the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, is not an effective deterrent, and is irreconcilable with both human dignity and the right to life.

Today is a day to remind ourselves of exactly why Australia stands against the death penalty. It is also an opportunity to renew our commitment to the efforts to consign the death penalty to history, not just in Australia but in every part of the world.