GREENS MOTION: World Day Against the Death Penalty

Mark moved a second motion on behalf of the Greens today, calling on the the Legislative Council to note the 18th World Day Against the Death Penalty and to reaffirm its opposition to the death penalty, which is an unacceptable punishment in a modern civil society. 


That this council—

1. Notes that Saturday 10 October was the 18th World Day Against the Death Penalty;

2. Notes that the last person executed in South Australia was in 1964 and that the death penalty was eventually abolished in this state in 1976; and

3. Reaffirms its opposition to the death penalty, which is an unacceptable punishment in a modern civil society.

Saturday 10 October this year marked Amnesty International's 18th World Day Against the Death Penalty. Amnesty International is calling on countries that still use the death penalty to halt all executions and permanently remove the death penalty as punishment for all crimes. While this is a global initiative and the death penalty still harms many people worldwide, I am proud to note that here in South Australia we abolished the death penalty in 1976, more than a decade after the last person was executed in our state in 1964.

In the 18 years since the first recognition of this international day, we have finally started to see some encouraging numbers worldwide. Last year, Amnesty International recorded 657 executions in 20 countries, excluding China, and a further 26,604 were known to be under sentence of death globally.

Encouragingly, 657 executions, whilst a lot, does represent a 5 per cent decrease from 2018. It is the second consecutive year that Amnesty recorded the lowest number of global executions over a 10-year period, but 657 people intentionally killed by the state is still unacceptable. It is 657 people too many.

To use the words of Amnesty International, 'the death penalty is a violent punishment that has no place in today's criminal justice system.' In this modern age, methods of execution still include things like beheading, electrocution, hanging, lethal injection and shooting. If this makes your stomach churn then you are not alone, because surveys show that Australians have shown consistently stronger and stronger opposition to the death penalty over time, with the most recent Roy Morgan survey in 2009 showing that over two-thirds of Australians (64 per cent) found imprisonment a preferable punishment for murder as compared with the death penalty.

Only 23 per cent of people supported the death penalty in 2009, which is down a full 30 percentage points from when the same survey was conducted in 1962, two short years before the last death penalty execution in South Australia.

There are many reasons why South Australians overwhelmingly oppose the death penalty, but I will outline just a few of the key points. The first and perhaps most obvious is that we know that intentionally killing another person is wrong. We have collectively agreed on this as a society, and I think it is a central tenet of a peaceful and just community. Certainly, the Greens have long opposed the death penalty, not least because one of our central guiding principles is peace and nonviolence.

Apart from the very crucial foundational point that our society knows killing is wrong, the death penalty has also failed as a tool in the criminal justice system, for many reasons. One of these reasons is that the death penalty is discriminatory. The death penalty disproportionately impacts people facing racial, ethnic or religious marginalisation and those from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

This is especially important to note in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has brought the global emergency of police violence and systemic injustice against people of colour to the forefront of public discussion. It is clearer than ever that the death penalty represents another vehicle through which the criminal justice system facilitates violent discrimination against people of colour as well as other marginalised groups. In some countries, including the USA, the death penalty is also used against people with mental or intellectual disabilities, who also face disproportionate discrimination in society and in the criminal justice system.

This disproportionate impact on marginalised people is made worse by the fact that many do not have access to effective legal representation, and we know that such access tends to align with privilege. It is for this reason that this year's theme for World Day Against the Death Penalty focuses on the right to effective legal representation for individuals who may face a death sentence.

As someone who practised as a lawyer for many years, primarily in the general area of legal aid, I know this need for effective legal representation is absolutely critical. But we also know that the death penalty does not reduce crime. As Amnesty International points out, there is no evidence that the death penalty is any more effective in reducing crime than life imprisonment. So the death penalty does not represent an approach that is tough on crime but one that is just tough on life—and 'tough' is an understatement because, no matter how you spin it, the death penalty is irreversible. A finite and permanent punishment, there can be no claim that the death penalty is geared towards reform or rehabilitation.

When asked for any final words before being executed, one US prisoner is reported to have quipped, 'Well, this will teach me a lesson, won't it?' The irony of that statement cannot be lost on anyone. It may be that not everyone should have a second chance out in society, and all of us will have different ideas about how our communities can be protected from perpetrators of horrific crimes, but it is objectively true, no matter who you are or what you believe, that the death penalty is permanent. The criminal justice system is managed by human beings who are fallible. The death penalty offers no recourse for human error, and errors do happen and have just happened in the past. This is an unacceptable risk.

The death penalty also hurts children. While international law prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed by people under 18 years of age, some countries still sentence juvenile defendants—in other words, teenagers—to death. Additionally, and often overlooked, there are the children and families of parents sentenced to death. These children can face significant psychological distress and carry a heavy emotional burden, which Amnesty International sees as a clear violation of their human rights.

Protecting human rights is central to the rationale behind World Day Against the Death Penalty, and it is clear that the death penalty represents a breach of these human rights. Specifically, it contradicts our right to life and our right to live free from torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, which are both protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amnesty International, like the Greens, opposes the death penalty in all cases, without exception, regardless of who is accused, the nature or circumstances of the crime, guilt or innocence, or method of execution.

I would invite colleagues to reflect with pride that South Australia has been death penalty free, legally, since 1976, but we need to recognise that there is much work that still needs to be done elsewhere. The Greens support Amnesty International in their push for an end to the death penalty and I encourage my colleagues to do the same. Finally, I would like to thank Michael Becker from the Unley group of Amnesty International here in Adelaide for drawing my attention to this important international day.