We must go beyond symbolic protests

 

Australia should place death penalty conditions on law enforcement cooperation. Photo by Dave McRae
Australia should place death penalty conditions on law enforcement cooperation. Photo by Dave McRae

 

Dave McRae & Diane Zhang

 

Australia’s recall of its ambassador in response to the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran is diplomatic theatre. So too the suspension of ministerial visits expresses Australian displeasure, but remains symbolic.

 

If these measures are the extent of Australia’s response, the Federal Government will have avoided the tougher proposition of taking a principled and long-term stance against capital punishment.

 

Australia has not been a consistent and active opponent of the death penalty internationally. The low point came with the execution of the Bali bombers in Indonesia in 2008, which both the Howard and Rudd governments supported.

 

Nevertheless, Chan and Sukumaran’s plight spurred successive Australian governments to action, with advocacy particularly intense in the months leading up to their death. Since their execution, however, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has told the press it is time for Australia to move on.

 

Australia’s turn to symbolism has not been devoid of positive effects. The recall by Brazil and the Netherlands of their ambassadors in January, now followed by Australia, has been part of a collective international response that has helped put the executions on the map as an issue in Indonesia.

 

Much as the death penalty’s proponents have sought to exploit this response to harness nationalist support, key media within Indonesia have now also used it to argue against further executions. Indonesia’s leading weekly news magazine Tempo has editorialised for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to enact a moratorium, in part out of consideration for “the global reaction and Indonesia’s increasingly poor image”.

 

Unless Indonesia enacts a moratorium or abolishes the death penalty immediately, however, the flaw of a symbolic response is that the impetus it creates will diminish as soon the ambassador returns, as the Netherlands’ envoy already has.

 

The deeper problem with symbolism is that it allows the debate over Australia’s response to be framed in terms of a test of strength. The question becomes whether Australia’s response is strong enough, rather than whether recalling an ambassador and suspending ministerial visits achieves a policy goal.

 

If this goal is substantive progress towards death penalty abolition in Indonesia and other retentionist countries, Australia needs substantive measures. Placing death penalty conditions on law enforcement cooperation is the main lever available to Australia, because of its clear importance to both Australia and Indonesia in combating transnational crime.

 

Within Indonesia, its importance means it can enable arguments against the death penalty on pragmatic grounds. Senior Indonesian officials have previously complained that the death penalty for corruption hampers asset recovery and extradition, owing to death penalty restrictions applied by other countries, for example.

 

Because law enforcement cooperation is based on mutual interest, it also engages Indonesia on an equal footing. Using aid as a bargaining tool, by contrast, conveys the message that Australia believes it can buy Indonesia’s policies, when it clearly cannot.

 

If the Australian government is reluctant to apply principled conditions to law enforcement cooperation, applying to all retentionist countries, because of costs to other interests, it needs to explain to the public what interests those are and why they are incompatible with substantive measures to oppose the death penalty.

 

For instance, the question that was not addressed in today’s Australian Federal Police press conference was whether the AFP believes international partners would continue to cooperate with Australia if our law required assurances that the death penalty would not be applied where cooperation took place.

 

In making this decision, the Government should also bear in mind that President Jokowi’s death penalty policies have created a unique opportunity to act. No single country can affect Indonesia’s death penalty practices because it can always be dismissed as seeking exceptional treatment only for its own citizens or attempting to unilaterally dictate terms to Indonesia.

 

At present though, the determination of Jokowi and his attorney general to press on with executing drug criminals on death row has opened a window for a collective response. So far, 12 foreigners from seven countries have been executed under Jokowi, along with two Indonesians.

 

A further 34 foreigners from 16 countries remain on death row for narcotic crimes and are at risk of being executed under the current presidency. Most of these countries will be actively advocating for their citizens.

 

It is time to move public debate on Australia’s opposition to the death penalty from symbolism to substance.

 

Dave McRae is a Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Institute in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. He is also an Associate at the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society. Diane Zhang is a public policy specialist working on Indonesia.

 

This piece was first published on ABC’s The Drum.

 

 

Dave McRae is a Senior Lecturer at the Asia Institute in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. He is also an Associate at the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society.