ASEAN setback: Forward march on death penalty

This is a setback from the government’s commitment to human rights protection — compared to the moratorium on the death penalty in 2009-2013.

Wahyu Susilo and Indriaswati Dyah Saptaningrum
Jakarta | Tue, May 31 2016 | 07:18 am

Last Wednesday President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced a controversial regulation in lieu of law, citing the many recent reports involving the rape and murder of children. The controversy stems from the addition of heavier penalties for the aforementioned crimes which include, among others, a life sentence, chemical castration and even the death penalty in particular cases. The death penalty has been outlined for cases where the crime has led to severe damage or death, or if the perpetrators were family members and or guardians of the victims.

The regulation is criticized for lacking a comprehensive perspective regarding sexual violence targeting children and also for strengthening the death penalty regime.

This is a setback from the government’s commitment to human rights protection — compared to the moratorium on the death penalty in 2009-2013. The high number of executions carried out under the President Jokowi administration is inconsistent with a commitment made among ASEAN leaders to protect the right to life as stated in the ASEAN Charter on Human Rights, adopted in 2012.

Executions and leaders’ statements elsewhere also indicate questionable commitment from ASEAN countries in regard to moving forward with a death penalty moratorium in the region.

Singapore executed Kho Jabing, a Malaysian citizen, on May 20, hours after the highest court rejected his appeal for clemency. In April, Malaysia also executed its citizens, Gunasegar Pitchaymuthu, Ramesh and Sasivarnam Jayakumar for murder. Indonesia may proceed to the next round of executions with a list of 14 death row convicts, reportedly after Idul Fitri in early July.

In April this year, Indonesia was criticized again by rights groups for claiming pro-capital punishment countries as like-minded groups in the UN General Assembly meeting, responding to outcry from a number of European countries over the assembly document, which omitted the commitment to promote the abolition of the death penalty.

The silence of ASEAN governments on this issue, before and following the Kho Jabing execution — presumably rooted in ASEAN’s principle of non-interference — will continue to be the biggest challenge for the future of death penalty abolition in Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately Jabing belonged to a country that does not seem to care about losing a life of its citizen. Let us not forget what happened to Filipino convict Mary Jane Veloso, whose country’s leaders had actively lobbied the Indonesian government, although the possibility of preventing her from execution is very unlikely.

At least their attempts have succeeded to delay the execution, providing more time for possible steps toward clemency. Similarly, regarding Indonesian migrant workers facing the death penalty in Malaysia, our government has actively provided legal assistance as well as bilateral diplomacy to prevent its citizens from executions.

Therefore, it is ironic that our government is planning a third round of executions. Moreover, the plan of the newly elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to revive the use of the death penalty, has a severe impact on the movement to abolish the death penalty in the region, as the country previously was among the few nations supporting its abolition.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights records that in Southeast Asia only three out of 11 UN members have abolished capital punishment — Timor Leste, Cambodia and the Philippines. Cambodia’s and Timor Leste’s commitment to eliminate capital punishment is part of their post-conflict reconstruction under the aegis of the UN. Meanwhile, the abolition found its momentum in the Philippines as part of the commitment to cut off the Ferdinand Marcos’ legacy, also sending a letter, reflecing active diplomatic roles in defending their migrant workers facing the death penalty abroad.

We still recall the migrant workers Sarah Balabagan and Flor Contemplacion sentenced to death for murder, cases that demonstrate the totality of the Philippines to defend its citizens from executions. This attempt has set the new benchmark and best practice for other ASEAN countries on how a country should protect its citizens facing the death penalty abroad.

Thus, Duterte’s plan to revive the death penalty in the Philippines is counterproductive, and would affect the government’s commitment to save the lives of its migrant workers abroad.

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s representative for the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights ( AICHR ), Dinna Wisnu, called for the abolition of the death penalty in ASEAN.

A similar call has come from the Malaysian AICHR representative Muhammad S. Abdullah for his active role in defending Wilfrida Soik, an Indonesian migrant worker, from execution.

However, their efforts promoting the abolition of capital punishment must be supported by comprehensive measures so as to push ASEAN countries to move away from their conservatism and look at the opportunity to end the death penalty.

In 2012 the road map toward abolishing capital punishment recorded a brighter picture when a few ASEAN countries no longer rejected the moratorium of the death penalty as shown in the table above.

The stance for abstention has given new hope for ASEAN to be a region in which the right to life would finally be respected as a non-derogable right.

Thus Indonesia’s rights defenders continue to mobilize support and international solidarity to promote the abolition of the death penalty, including in the current penal code amendment discussed by lawmakers.

Activists in the Philippines will surely continue to fight Duterte’s plan to revive the death penalty. It is precisely in this alarming situation that the momentum is here to urge leaders of ASEAN countries to walk their talk in protecting human rights as enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, by developing a road map for the abolition of death penalty in the region.


Wahyu Susilo is a policy analyst for Migrant CARE, an NGO. Indriaswati Dyah Saptaningrum is a researcher for the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy ( ELSAM ) and a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales Law School in Sydney.