Australia Changes its Position on the Death Penalty On 16 February 2003 the Australian PM said in a Sunday morning television interview that the Bali bombers "should be dealt with in accordance with Indonesian law... and if [the death penalty] is what the law of Indonesia provides, well, that is how things should proceed. There won't be any protest from Australia." In early March 2003 the PM told US television that he would welcome the death penalty for Osama Bin Laden. "I think everybody would", Mr Howard said. In response to these comments:' Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia would not intervene if bin Laden was to be executed. 'I person sally have never supported the death penalty but int he case of Osama bin Laden, I don't think that too many years would be shed if he was executed, bearing in mind all the people he's responsible for killing.'  These comments mark a significant change in Australia's attitude to the death penalty and a further weakening of Australia's commitment to international human rights standards.
Australia's longstanding position Australia has traditionally taken a strong principled stand against capital punishment. In 1986 diplomatic relations with Malaysia were strained when Australia protested the execution of two Australians, Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers. The then Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, went so far as to describe the death penalty as "barbaric." In October 1990 Australia acceded to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that commits signatory nations to abolishing the death penalty within their borders. In the introduction to the Second Optional Protocol it is made clear that the abolition of the death penalty "contributes to [the] enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights." It also states that signatory nations desire to undertake "an international commitment to abolish the death penalty." Even Mr Howard's own government has in the past consistently condemned the use of the death penalty. As recently as August 2002, in response to Nigeria's use of the death penalty, the Australian Foreign Minister, Mr Alexander Downer, issued a media release stating that: The Australian Government is universally and consistently opposed to the use of capital punishment in any circumstances. The death penalty is an inhumane form of punishment which violates the most fundamental human right: the right to life.
This policy was restated in December 2002 when the death penalty was handed down to an Australian citizen convicted of drug trafficking in Vietnam. Prime Minister Howard and the death penalty Prime Minister Howard is on the record as an opponent of the death penalty. In a doorstop in 2001, for example, the Australian Prime Minister said that he had "a pragmatic opposition to the death penalty that is based on the belief that from time to time the law makes mistakes and you can't bring somebody back after you " ve executed them." Since the Bali bombing in October 2002, an event that deeply moved the Prime Minister, Mr Howard's position on the death penalty has shifted. It would appear that, with respect to terrorism at least, he is willing to remain silent while another nation executes a fellow human being. The implications of the change in policy The implications of this shift in Australian policy have not yet been fully explored or debated. For example, how will this new policy affect the seven Australians, currently being assisted by Australian consular officials, who have been charged with drug-related offences in countries where such crimes carry the death penalty? Will Australia remain silent if these people are found guilty, simply because, as the Australian Prime Minister is now saying, such matters should be dealt with in accordance with domestic law? If Mr Howard's new position is more correctly interpreted as one of "terrorists deserve the death penalty", then what will happen, mused one Australian journalist, if the United States decides to execute one or more of the Australians currently being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? Will the Australian government intervene? Or, more ominously, is it only a matter of time before the death penalty is re-introduced into Australia specifically for terrorist offences? The Australian Government is currently restricted by law from extraditing anyone to a country where the offence charged attracts the death penalty.
Is this law, and others like it, no longer to apply in the case of terrorism? The threat to human rights: terror or the reaction? The Australian Prime Minister's statements on capital punishment are out of step with international human rights standards. He has, without explanation or debate, altered Australia's principled opposition to the death penalty. Consequently, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that terrorism has won another battle, at least in the sense that Australia's commitment to maintaining international standards of human rights has been weakened in response to the threat of terror.