Selective national outrage when it comes to capital punishment


The author, Fiona So, was the Human Rights Defender intern, semester one 2015. To learn more about our internships, click here.

Weeks after national outrage was levelled at Indonesia following the executions of convicted former drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the comparative silence of Australian leaders to a federal US jury’s recent decision to sentence 21-year old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in the Boston marathon bombings (which killed three and seriously injured many others) speaks volumes. It sheds an uncomfortable light on how political opposition to capital punishment often depends not on adherence to a set of consistent moral principles, but rather on the identities of the punisher and the punished.

In Boston, news of Tsarnaev’s death sentence was met with unease. Polls showed just 15% of Bostonians supported the decision, compared to 60% of Americans nationwide. While many local residents thought that death was the ‘easy’ way out, others cited Massachusetts’ proud history as a progressive state. It abolished capital punishment in 1984 and has not carried out a single execution since 1947.

Sharing this opposition to Tsarnaev’s death sentence was Bali Nine lawyer Veronica Haccou. She invoked the memories of Chan and Sukumaran to argue that capital punishment achieves nothing – least of all justice – and should never be condoned, under any circumstances. Conversely, Australia’s political leaders have so far failed to express the same universal opposition to capital punishment that they publicly proclaimed during the sentencing of the Bali Nine. The inconsistency is more than a little glaring.

Some argue that the different magnitudes of the crimes – drug trafficking versus mass murder and terrorism – sets up an unfair comparison. This is debatable, given the complex moral calculations upon which this view rests. However, it must be remembered that pleas for clemency on behalf of the Bali Nine were made on the basis that it was senseless and cruel to put to death successfully rehabilitated prisoners. The same reasoning could be applied to Tsarnaev, especially considering his age and reports of remorse since his incarceration.

Moreover, the general use of capital punishment by the US and other states, including China and Singapore, have resulted in well-documented miscarriages of justice. The relative lack of political opposition by Australia to capital punishment in these countries, despite the fact that they each carry out executions at a far higher rate than Indonesia, casts doubt over the credibility of Australia’s outrage whenever it is expressed. If Australia harboured a genuine moral aversion to capital punishment, one would expect vocal opposition to be consistently applied to all countries which still use it. One would also expect compassion for those on death row to extend to all nationalities – not just to Australians.


Recognising these inconsistencies, rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called upon the Australian government to build on the public sentiment regarding the Bali Nine executions and to lead a regional coalition for abolishing the death penalty everywhere. Unfortunately, so long as selective political outrage prevails, any claims to a progressive stance on capital punishment will ring hollow.