Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Death Penalty and the 'Bali 2'

Let me start by stating that I do not support the use of the death penalty as a response to crime.  The reasons for my position can be summarised as follows:

  1. I find it difficult to trust the settler-colonial state to use the ultimate punishment against its citizens 'fairly', given its use of genocide against Indigenous peoples, and the propensity for the formal justice system to deploy state-sanctioned violence against the poor.
  2. The state's exhortation that we 'shalt not kill' is contradicted somewhat when it gives itself the right to do so.
  3. There is little evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on serious offending. Research on the impact of the death penalty in the US has shown that in some of the states using this form of punishment over the past 2 decades, the rates of serious offending have either not changed or in fact increased.
  4. Because the use of the ultimate, irreversible penalty requires that the 'system' be perfect.  And no justice system is perfect; not the various jurisdictions here in Australia (where I live), or New Zealand (where I grew up). These so-called 'civilised' systems of justice routinely get it wrong, as recent exoneration's demonstrate. The same can be said for the justice system of our neighbour, Indonesia.
Dominating media and political commentary right now is the possible execution of the Bali 2 Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. As a New Zealander living in Australia the massive amount of commentary on the situation has highlighted a number of interesting contradictions and patterns of behaviour on the part of Australians, particularly members of the mainstream media, political class and the much broader group of 'social commentators' (namely those who write letters to the editor or engage with talk back radio). A number of recurring 'themes' are present in a lot of their rhetoric on this issue, including:

Indonesia's justice system is barbaric
While Australia does not use the death penalty as a response to crime, it is nevertheless difficult for some international observers like myself to take seriously claims made by some Australian's that the Indonesian justice system is barbaric and uncivilised. After all, Australia is the country that incarcerates Indigenous peoples at higher rates than anyone else, and the upward trend is not, as some argue, related solely to increases in serious offending by Indigenous peoples (see discussion below). It is the jurisdiction that suspends the legislation giving all Australian's the same protections against racial discrimination so it can deploy discriminatory policies against the Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Territory. It is the jurisdiction where police corruption and racist practice has long been established via research and formal enquiries. It is the jurisdiction that currently avoids its international obligations by processing 'illegal immigrants', including children, in off-shore detention centres; not to mention imprisoning under-age Indonesian youth for people smuggling in contravention of international covenants against such practices. It is time that many Australian's woke up to the fact that your country's 'way of doing justice' is not viewed by some as the exemplar of western, civilised practice that you think it is.      

Australian's have contradictory attitudes towards the use of the death penalty
It appears that the majority of Australian's are opposed to Indonesia putting the Bali 2 to death by firing squad.  As someone opposed to the death penalty I am happy that this is the case. But I do wonder where all the anti-death penalty Australian's were when Indonesia used the death penalty against the Bali bombers back in 2008? At the time there were a few commentators, those consistently against the death penalty who expressed opposition to the executions on the grounds of their opposition being a moral absolute (see for example, the editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald, March 2015 and the 2 editorials that commentary refers to in the same newspaper back in 2008). In the main, the majority of the media and political commentary was of the 'Indonesia is a sovereign nation and has the right to determine what they believe is the appropriate way to respond to crime' kind. Or, as expressed by John Howard and repeated by many Australian commentator at the time, the bombers were simply 'getting what they deserved'. In other words when Indonesia's use of the death penalty suited the response some Australian's wanted to the killing of 202 people in Bali, there was little talk of the barbarism of the Indonesian justice system or criticism of its use of the death penalty. And before people email me to say it is not appropriate to compare the Bali bombings to drug smuggling let me just say that a) the death penalty is either barbaric and an inappropriate response to all offences or it is not - the moral absolute referred to in the Sydney Morning Herald editorial mentioned above - and b) remember the devastation wrought against the Indonesian population by the drug trade, the reason why, whether we agree with them or not, many Indonesians support the use of the death penalty in drug smuggling cases.  

The mainstream media and political class routinely express condescending, colonialist attitudes towards our South Pacific and Asian neighbours
Certain attitudes support the aforementioned 'themes', in particular a slightly racist condescension on the part of some members of the mainstream media, political class and 'social commentators' towards our nearest neighbours in the South Pacific and Asia. Colonialist ideals of the inherent social and racial superiority of the 'Australian way' stinks up much of the rhetoric about Indonesia's political and justice systems. Belief in the superiority of the 'western way' lurks behind the smirks that often accompany comments about police and judicial corruption, and the barbarity of Indonesia's prison systems and use of the death penalty. Is there some truth to these allegations/attitudes? Yes, corruption of the judiciary occurs, and anecdotal evidence of the need to bribe police in order to avoid being charged is so vast that it simply cannot be ignored.

But, this country is hardly in a position to cast such dispersion's at its neighbours. Putting aside the usual response that while your own justice system is not perfect it is not as bad as others as a) an exaggeration of how 'just'  your justice system is and b) ignorance of the degree to which the system is classist, racist and misogynist, let us highlight a few home truths about the 'Australian way' (and the same can be said of the New Zealand way as well): first, as I intimated above you have probably the worst record of incarceration of Indigenous peoples in the world, and while you continue to drive up their rate of incarceration through - in part - the biased application of police discretion, implementation of racist legislation like the NTER, and through arrests related to driving offences (in the Northern Territory) and imprisonment for non-payment of fines (Western Australia) you have little justification for intimating that other country's justice systems are 'uncivilised". Similarly while you continue to incarcerate refugees including children in contravention of UN conventions, many of whom are fleeing war zones that your country was involved in creating, you don't get to condemn anyone else for unethical conduct. And lastly, while your political class is more concerned at stopping potential 'terrorists' from returning from Middle East conflicts than doing something concrete about the 'gendered terrorism' occurring every day in this country, then it is increasingly difficult to accept the inferences many of you make that country's like Indonesia are 'less civilised'. And Mr Abbott, announcing the 'strategy/taskforce or whatever photo opportunity your advisers devised recently to make you and your government look serious about domestic violence doesn't nullify my argument, given that your government recently cut funding for the community-centred DV-related services required to support survivors of domestic violence.

The last point I want to make on this issue relates to the tendency of the mainstream media, political class and social commentators to 'feign outrage' - to look for reasons to make disparaging, negative comments about Indonesian officials involved in the row over the fate of the Bali 2. A classic example of this strategy occurred recently in response to the massive police and military deployment when the Bali 2 were transferred to another prison. It was reported that up to 700 personnel were deployed during the exercise, along with numerous armoured vehicles, jet fighters, etc. Yes, the response was completely over the top and unnecessary. But the outrage from some media and Abbot et al is hard to take seriously when a similar situation recently occurred here.  I am referring to police and 'security' institutions across Australia deploying up to 800 personnel in an anti-terrorist exercise, called Operation Appleby, that netted a massive total of... 2 arrests. The Australian Federal Police and others involved were heavily criticised by the Muslim community and so-called 'lefties' (as they were described by mainstream media) for the excessive force deployed against their communities. They were accused of political opportunism; of carrying out an exaggerated response to the situation in order to display - through media, an exaggerated level of threat. The official response, that the number of people involved was required to ensure 'safety' etc, simply didn't stack up. My point is that the political class and justice officials of this country are not above using exaggerated responses  to 'threats' for political purposes in order to gain positive media headlines, any less than their Indonesian counterparts are. In the case of Operation Appleby the population of convenience for an exercise in exaggerated moral panic were Muslims; Australia's current 'go to' community for the expression of exaggerated outrage, fear and risk.  In the Indonesian context what better community to target for an exaggerated response than Australian drug smugglers, a target group officials know is easy to justify due to decades of condescending rhetoric and behaviour towards that country from Australia's politicians and populist media. And for those New Zealander's reading this, it wouldn't pay to get too cocky; you might care to recall the massive deployment of police against the Tuhoe peoples in the Bay of Plenty to arrest all those 'terrorists' a few years back - you know the ones that were eventually charged with firearm offences?

As for the Bali 2, Andrew and Myuran, I hope current attempts to halt their execution are successful. I hope that one day they can return to Australia and demonstrate to their families, friends and communities the extent of their rehabilitation, and to teach young people here the price that can be paid for getting involved in the drug trade. I only hope that the ham-fisted, condescending and colonialist rhetoric that spews forth from this country's mainstream media, politicians and 'social commentators' has not pissed Indonesian officials off so much that Andrew and Myuran's chances of avoiding the ultimate punishment have in any way been diminished.  

1 comment:

  1. Good points Juan. The other comment I would add is that there seems to be an implicit racism in the media treatment both here (in NZ) and in Australia (from what I can tell) in that it is only when the death penalty is applied to NZers or Australians that our media and communities become outraged. The Indonesian victims of executions remain un-named and unrecognised. There are no campaigns to save them - clearly showing different standards depending on one's nationality or ethnic background.