Saturday, March 7, 2015

On ending the death penalty, everywhere

Is there a right to decide to kill another person?

I was initially surprised to learn of Kant's support of capital punishment and much has been written about that. My other great influence, Hannah Arendt's views were informed by the horrors of World War Two. I am caught traversing their thinking.

I have written previously in this blog how transformative my time working as a senator's staffer was as far as influencing my present career direction. Seeing politics working 'from the inside' drove me to ask questions that hadn't been in textbooks or in the media. It tentatively set me on the philosophical path as I wondered and marvelled at the very 'rawness' of human nature as it unfolded before my hitherto world-weary, yet clearly still naive, self. Naive to the blunt machinations of power as played out in the corridors of Parliament House. I'm still seeking, if not answers, then explanations.

I was employed initially for a period of six weeks although it ended up being two and a half years in the end. Along the way, there was a media roller coaster, protective/defensive mechanisms, politics good and bad, Telstra and so on. But I haven't said much about that first task, the reason I was employed--researching and writing a speech on one of the Senator's passionate causes: the International Transfer of Prisoners Treaty legislation. It has come to mind as we are bombarded daily by the fate of two of the so-called Bali 9, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who, as I write, sit in cells on an island awaiting, and waiting, execution. By rifle. Awful.

For a first assignment as researcher/speechwriter this was a challenge. I believed myself sufficiently cosmopolitan to be against the death penalty as a general rule. Just prior to my joining the office, the Parliament had debated euthanasia legislation. Euthanasia was something I could support. I was disappointed it was defeated at the time. My now boss, was one of the parliamentarians, in a conscience vote, who voted against it. His speech for that was one I was to read to begin to develop my craft as speechwriter. I recall thinking at the time, glad I didn't have to write that--something I couldn't agree with. 

Indeed, it was one of those questions I had to often ask: is my writing the speech merely a job I must do regardless of my view? Did I need to have a shared view in order to write the right speech? Could I have written the euthanasia speech? It remained hypothetical but planted a seed of challenging my conscience which continues today in my work.

Back to that first job though. What was this about and why the boss's particular passion? He wanted me to draft a speech which would support the exchange of prisoners, returning Australians to jails in Australia from jails overseas. It was largely aimed at Australians on drugs charges, facing life imprisonment or in some cases, the death penalty. And mostly in Asian countries. 

I recall as a university student, the plight of Australian pair Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, convicted drug traffickers, hanged in Malaysia in 1986. It was big news at the time. I was probably of the view at the time that although it went against my opposition to execution in general, perhaps it is not for us to interfere in the law of other states. It was an uneasy position but...

Five years later, in the early 1990s when I worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs, I was to learn quietly that one of my colleagues in the same branch had in fact been one of the consular officials in Malaysia at the time. It had a major impact on him personally and my chance to 'see the other side' effectively had a profound impact on my thinking too.  

Back to the days in the office of drafting the speech. Let's just say that while my views weren't rock solid, I initially took a little persuasion to come around to the Senator's thinking. A little bit of research, a little bit of discussion, a little bit of recollection...I met and spoke with people who had returned to Australia under less formal agreements. Their rehabilitation was real.

It didn't take long for me to review my 'do the crime, do the time' position, in flagrant contradiction I suppose of my strong anti-execution views. Likewise, were not the Senator and I in different ways, contradicting a base logic in our opposing views of euthanasia? Who chooses when and how a person's life is to end? 

Many of these thoughts and memories and challenges have misted through my mind these last few weeks. Could not Chan and Sukumaran (and the remaining Bali 9) be transferred home under the legislation (which eventually passed)? Turns out, Indonesia is not a signatory (some 60 or so countries have signed). More work needs to be done. I join with many in the public sphere who argue that Chan and Sukumaran have rehabilitated and taking their lives by firing squad will simply be a waste. To watch the abuse of force and trumped up securitisation of this matter as the two were transferred simply defied commonsense. It is yet another example of nations contriving an overt security environment where one doesn't exist, for domestic political gain. And yes, I am critical of the Australian Governments of recent history for this too. 

It is not just Indonesia as a nation in Australia's orbit which continues to use the death penalty. Japan and the United States of course also persist with the death penalty. 

There ought to be a moratorium, with a view to a total ban. It occurred to me today that a moratorium, like that in my other area of research, whaling, might go part of the way to drawing to a close such brutal practices of another era. (There is much more work to be done there though.) 

In that speech I wrote eighteen years ago, we appealed to humanitarian issues and people's ability to rehabilitate and rebuild. I've also learnt, read and thought much more about life in those eighteen years since. I simply cannot reconcile the ongoing use of the death penalty under any circumstances. I also hope for the mercy of these two young men. 

I shall continue to reflect on Kant the man who gave us Perpetual Peace and his view of the justification of public execution. Time and tide. Time. 


Postscript: A copy of that speech from May 1997, can be found here

And as a second postscript, the senator not long after the euthanasia debate, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a particularly aggressive and painful one which contributed to his death some years later. One night, in the office between divisions when we used to talk about many things, I asked him not long after the cancer started eating away and the pain and illness began to take over, how would he vote if the euthanasia legislation returned to the Senate? It changed his mind, he said he'd vote for it. Time. Tide. Time...we don't always have.