The Death Penalty; an inhumane and ineffective way to deal with serious crime

BY: Andrew Barnes
The writer - Andrew Barnes is the Australian High Commissioner to Ghana
The writer - Andrew Barnes is the Australian High Commissioner to Ghana

Today we join others around the world to mark the 16th World Day Against the Death Penalty. 

The 2018 World Day is focused on raising awareness of the inhumane living conditions of people sentenced to death.

The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty reports that many testimonies document the inhumane living conditions that people sentenced to death endure.

Even though people on death row are entitled to the same basic rights and treatment conditions as other categories of prisoners, as set out in the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela rules).

In most countries around the world that still have prisoners on death row, the living conditions they endure are especially harsh and inhumane, adding to the mental stress of condemned prisoners.


In Australia, all six states and two territories had abolished the death penalty by 1985. In 2010, the federal government passed legislation that prohibited the reintroduction of capital punishment.

The abolition of the death penalty in Australia has broad bipartisan political support.

Reflecting Australia’s commitment to universal human rights, Australia believes as a matter of principle that the death penalty has no place in the modern world.

It brutalises human society, is degrading, and is an affront to human dignity.

In particular, Australia opposes the death penalty because: it is irrevocable - miscarriages of justice cannot be rectified, and no legal system is safe from error; it denies any possibility of rehabilitation to the convicted individual; there is no convincing evidence that it is a more effective deterrent than long-term or life imprisonment; and it is unfair – it is used disproportionately against the poor, people with intellectual or mental disabilities and minority groups.

The international trend is strongly in favour of global abolition – we want this to continue. Australia remains a leader in efforts to end use of the death penalty worldwide.

The key international legal instrument seeking to abolish the death penalty is the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989.

The protocol requires states parties to take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within their jurisdictions.

Australia acceded to the Second Optional Protocol in 1990 and is one of more than 80 parties to the Protocol. The Protocol entered into force in international law on 11 July 1991.

International momentum is towards the abolition of the death penalty.

In 1967, when Australia carried out its last execution, only 12 countries had completely abolished the death penalty; fifty years later, that number had risen to 107, with a further six countries abolitionist for ordinary (non-military) crimes. (56 countries are retentionist and 23 countries carried out executions in 2017).

The pace at which abolition has spread globally has led some to argue that a customary norm is emerging that considers the death penalty to be a violation of the absolute prohibition on torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of punishment.

On 19 December 2007, Australia sponsored and voted in favour of a landmark United Nations General Assembly resolution which called for an immediate moratorium on executions as a first step towards the universal abolition of the death penalty.

As a member of the UN Human Rights Council for the 2018-20 term, Australia has pledged to continue its strong commitment to the global abolition of the death penalty.

Every second year, a resolution at the UN General Assembly calls for a global moratorium on the death penalty. Australia co-sponsors this resolution.

In 2016, Australia joined the Inter-Regional Taskforce on the resolution, which initiates and negotiates the text. Australia undertakes lobbying in support of the resolution to secure strong and clear text and increased support for each successive resolution.

In alternate years to the General Assembly resolution, the Human Rights Council considers a resolution on the question of the death penalty. Australia co-sponsors this resolution.

Australia urges all countries that carry out capital punishment to cease executions and establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

At the very least, we call for countries to reduce the scope or incidence of the application of the death penalty.

We particularly urge states not to impose the death penalty for offences which do not meet the threshold of ‘most serious crimes’ stipulated under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), including drug-related offences.

Australia condemns the imposition of the death penalty on juveniles, pregnant women and people with mental or intellectual disabilities and urges all countries that retain capital punishment as part of their law (whether or not they carry out executions) to remove references to the death penalty from legislation.

Finally, Australia urges these countries to sign the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

The writer is the Australian High Commissioner to Ghana