australia's policy on the death penalty
Officially, Australia has a long-standing principled opposition
to capital punishment. The death penalty has been abolished
in Australia. Australia
Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights, which commits
Australia to the abolition of the death penalty. Australia
voted for the UN General Assembly's
resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death
penalty (18 December
annually co-sponsors a resolution of the UN Human Rights
Commission that calls for all nations to abolish
the death penalty, e.g. The
Question of the Death Penalty (20 April 2005) UN
However, over the last few years Australian politicians,
both government and opposition, have weakened this stance.
Australia's position now seems to be that Australians should
not be executed but other people can be. It remains to
be seen whether the Rudd government will return to Australia's
death penalty policy under Howard
John Howard was prime Minister of Australia from 1996
to 2007. Confidential government documents obtained by
CCL under freedom of information reveal that during those
years, the Howard
government severely undermined Australia's long-standing
to the death penalty.
In the late 1990s, the Howard government decided
that Australia could assist in foreign death penalty cases
without a guarantee that no one would be executed. This
violates Australia’s international obligations and
was a significant break with past practice.
After the horrific Bali bombings of October 2002,
the Howard government authorised the AFP to collect evidence
and statements and to subpoena witnesses to assist in the
conviction and sentencing to death of the Bali bombers.
Of course, Australia should cooperate to bring terrorists
to justice, but it should do so in a manner consistent
with human rights and Australia's obligation to ensure
that no one is exposed to the real risk of execution.
CCL condemns acts of terrorism as gross violations
of human rights. The victims of terrorist acts and their
families deserve our deepest sympathy and condolences.
However, Australia has a long-standing principled opposition
to the death penalty. Australia respects the
right to life of all individuals – no matter their
crime. We should not be assisting in the court cases of
people who could be executed.
The confidential documents show that the government
had flawed legal advice stating that Australia’s
human rights obligations do not extend beyond our borders
or beyond individuals in the custody of Australian agents
overseas. This advice is clearly wrong. It is inconsistent
with Australia’s obligation not to expose anyone
in any circumstances to the real risk of execution.
Following the government’s legal advice to
its logical conclusion, it authorises AFP and ASIO officers
to assist their foreign counterparts in violating human
rights – so long as they do it abroad and their counterparts
are the ones detaining the victims.
find out more...
The article below
traces the beginnings of this undermining of Australia's
principled opposition to capital punishment.
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 personsally have never supported the death penalty but
in the case of Osama bin Laden, I don't think that too
many tears 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
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?
Have the terrorists won?
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.
Michael Walton, March 2003
This is a modified version of an article
first published in the Human
 ATV Channel 7, "Interview
with John Howard (Part 2)", Sunday Sunrise,
16 February 2003.
 FoxNews, "John
Howard, Australian Prime Minister", Your
World with Neil Cavuto, 6 March 2003.
 Ross Peake, "PM
- bin Laden's death welcome", Canberra Times,
8 March 2003.
 Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander
Death Sentence is Inhumane", media release FA114,
22 August 2002.
 Prime Minister Howard in a doorstop
interview on 13 June 2001.