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Monday, 22 May 2006
Page: 17

Mr BAIRD (1:29 PM) —I move:

That this House:

(1)   notes with concern:

(a)   the increasing use of the death penalty as a criminal sanction in our region;

(b)   the execution of Mr Van Tuong Nguyen in the Republic of Singapore; and

(c)   the plight of all Australians who are currently on death row;

(2)   congratulates the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and the Australian Government and Opposition for their recent efforts on behalf of Australians on death row; and

(3)   calls on the Australian Government to:

(a)   advocate with our regional neighbours the abolition of the death penalty or, as an interim measure, the establishment of a moratorium on executions; and

(b)   encourage our regional neighbours to ratify the United Nations International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Second Optional Protocol.

The execution late last year of Mr Van Nguyen focused Australia’s collective mind on the horrors of capital punishment. For the first time since the execution of Barlow and Chambers in 1986, Australia collectively discussed the issue of capital punishment. Tens of thousands of Australians attended vigils, church services and observance ceremonies against Mr Van Nguyen’s execution. Within this parliament, more than 450 ministers, members and senators, together with staff, signed a petition that was presented to the Singaporean government pleading for clemency. At 9.07 am on 2 December 2005, Van Nguyen was executed. Around Australia, tens of thousands of people marked the occasion with solemnity.

Mr Van Nguyen was a criminal. He was a drug smuggler, a man who conspired to import 26,000 shots of heroin into Australia. His criminality was never disputed and his criminal actions were not supported by anyone who called for his sentence to be commuted. Our pleas for clemency were not in support of his actions but rather were a recognition that human life is sacred and that state sanctioned executions are anathema to human rights.

Life was never easy for the Nguyen family; money was tight when they were growing up and their stepfather was a violent man. Van Nguyen agreed to smuggle drugs to help his addict brother pay off drug related debts, a criminal and stupid decision, but one born out of love for his brother rather than criminal greed. After a lonely and nervous four-hour wait at gate C22 of Changi Airport, Van Nguyen prepared to board his connecting flight. As he cleared security, he inadvertently triggered a metal detector. Van Nguyen was so inexperienced as a smuggler that he began to shake and volunteered his crime to police. Nguyen pled guilty to possessing 400 grams of heroin, more than 25 times the amount at which the death penalty is mandatory. He was sentenced to death on 20 March 2004.

The Prime Minister, the Governor-General, the Leader of the Opposition and Australia’s ministers of the Crown should be commended on their efforts to help this young Australian. Appeals for a presidential pardon were made repeatedly at the very highest levels of government. Never before has an Australian Prime Minister lobbied so hard to save the life of an Australian. The official plea for clemency by the Australian government was rejected in October 2005. The Prime Minister, ministers, the opposition and this parliament continued to call for clemency, ultimately to no avail.

The execution of Mr Nguyen was a sad day, but his story is not unique. As I stand here today, there are at least four Australians awaiting execution: Mr Henry Chhin in China, Mr Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia, and Huu Trinh in Vietnam. Many others await trial on charges that could render them liable for capital punishment.

A few decades ago, capital punishment was used in almost every jurisdiction in the world. Over the past 20 or 30 years, many countries have abolished capital punishment as barbaric and having no deterrent effect. According to Amnesty International, 74 countries maintain the death penalty in both law and practice. Eighty-six countries have abolished capital punishment completely; 11 retain it but only for extreme circumstances; and 25 maintain it for ordinary crimes but have allowed it to fall into disuse for at least a decade. Within our region, many of our neighbours either utilise capital punishment or maintain its legal status as a sanction for criminal offences. China, India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam all maintain capital punishment within their criminal codes. In the Pacific region, the Cook Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Tonga have the death penalty enshrined in either statute or their constitution.

I call on the Australian government to harness the momentum from Van Nguyen’s execution. I call on the Australian government to lobby our neighbours, the countries with which we have strong aid programs or bilateral relationships, to abolish or at least place an interim moratorium on the use of the death penalty. In 1976, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came into force. The covenant enshrines ‘first-generation’ civil and political rights; it enshrines the equal and inalienable rights of freedom, justice and peace, and the dignity of human life. The second optional protocol to the convention is designed solely to abolish the death penalty, which is inconsistent with the enhancement of human dignity and the progression of human rights.

I call on the Australian government to lobby our neighbours to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the second optional protocol on the abolition of the death penalty. As a member of this parliament, as a Liberal, as a Christian and as a man, I have a strong belief in the sanctity of all human life. I cannot support the ending of a human life as a suitable sanction for any crime. The death penalty is a hallmark of Third World nations, of countries with little respect for human life. I call on this parliament to support this motion. I call on the Australian government to actively lobby our regional neighbours to move forthwith to abolish capital punishment. I commend the motion to the House.

Mrs Moylan —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.