Friday 12 October saw the nation mourn 10 years since the Bali bombings. It was a time of reflection over loved ones lost and maimed on the popular Indonesian island.
It was also a time to reflect over another loss of life – life taken not by extremists but by the cool steady hand of government.
That week also marked 10 years since the first World Day Against the Death Penalty was established by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty to raise awareness in combating the primitive practice of capital punishment.
And so, for this year's annual Australians Against Capital Punishment (AACP) and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) World Day Against the Death Penalty dinner, over 200 supporters came together in the spirit of humanity, compassion and continued support of this important fight for human dignity. The many guests included judges, magistrates, senators, human rights-conscious lawyers and Lee and Chris Rush, parents of Scott Rush, who spent years on death row in Bali until a successful appeal changed his sentence to life imprisonment. There were also many law students and young people: an encouraging sign of the continued and growing interest in this issue.
The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP), created in Rome on 13 May 2002, is an alliance of non-government organisations, professional legal bodies and unions whose aim is to strengthen the international campaign against the death penalty. As at July 2011, the WCADP had 121 member organisations.
While Australia has not executed anyone since the hanging of Ronald Ryan in Melbourne jail in 1967, there are still many countries that do including our neighbour, Indonesia, where other Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, also members of the Bali Nine, are still facing the death penalty.
The evening was hosted by ALHR President Stephen Keim. The main speaker, however, was Father Frank Brennan SJ AO who flew from Melbourne for the event. Father Brennan is a renowned human rights advocate and the son of Sir Gerard Brennan, a former chief justice of the High Court of Australia.
Father Brennan delivered a speech whose reach spanned decades and circumnavigated the globe. It included memories of Ronald Ryan's hanging whilst at boarding school; working at a remote refugee camp on the Ugandan border; and personal relationships with members of the judiciary around the world.
The speech provided a profound and powerful message of compassion, humanity and principle that touched the audience with the wisdom of personal experience.
Father Brennan was proud of how Australia had been progressing the campaign to end capital punishment in the global community. However, he was very critical of the mixed messages of politicians like former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who, on the one hand led a government that consistently voted for a moratorium on the death penalty at the UN yet at the same appeared to approve and consent to the execution of the Bali bombers.
He noted that politicians like ex-Attorney General, Robert McClelland, had held fast in maintaining that the death penalty is never an option.
Father Brennan also praised the moral and political courage of Helen Clark, the previous New Zealand Prime Minister, who when asked in 2008 about the pending execution of the three Bali bombers asserted, uncompromisingly, the issue of principle that the New Zealand Government will not and does not support the death penalty.
In suggesting that our current crop of leaders should take their cues from Ms. Clark, Father Brennan said we cannot hide behind the cop out line that it is not our place to intervene in other countries' domestic processes.
He optimistically tracked the development at the United Nations of a slowly increasing majority in favour of a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty each year since December, 2007.
It is important, said Father Brennan, that Australians continue to press for a constant, unchanging position on capital punishment and that we encourage other countries to join the movement in the right direction.
Lee and Christine Rush spoke of their abiding support for their son throughout his ordeal. Lee and Christine gave a compelling insight into life on death row and the anguish of the families of those who languish there.
According to Amnesty International, 21 countries recorded executions in 2011 compared to the 31 countries that did so ten years ago. An encouraging trend despite the obviously distressing truth that one execution is one too many.
Father Brennan related a story of how a minority judgment of a US Supreme Court judge against the death penalty some decades ago came to be used half a world away by the constitutional court in South Africa to abolish the death penalty. There is always point in standing up for principle.
As father Brennan pointed out, justice must not kill. It is time to abolish the death penalty so we can co-operate more effectively, internationally, in combating terrorism and the drug trade, without forfeiting the principles we hold dear.
It's time to abolish the death penalty so that we can affirm the value of all human life: so that we can prescribe the moral limits to the State's dominion over the human person.
About the Authors
Thomas Serafin is a Queensland Committee Member of the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights. He is presently studying a Bachelor of Laws and Journalism at Queensland University of Technology. He has had extensive experience in rights-based organisations volunteering at ATSILS, Caxton Legal Centre and QPILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic amongst others.
In Thomas's spare time, he enjoys writing, practicing Jujitsu and engaging in political and philosophical discourse.
Benedict Coyne is a National Committee Member and Queensland Convenor of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR). He completed a graduate law degree at Southern Cross University graduating with first class Honours and the University Medal amongst other awards.
He had an incredibly interesting year in 2011 as Associate to the Hon Justice Bromberg at the Federal Court of Australia in Melbourne, including hearing (and substantially researching) the Eatock v Bolt case. He was admitted to practise in Victoria in November 2011 and is currently a lawyer in the new major projects and class actions department of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in Brisbane.
He enjoys writing and performing poetry in his spare time.
Stephen Keim has been a legal practitioner for 30 years, the last 23 of which have been as a barrister. He became a Senior Counsel for the State of Queensland in 2004. Stephen is book reviews editor for the Queensland Bar Association emagazine Hearsay. Stephen is President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and is also Chair of QPIX, a non-profit film production company that develops the skills of emerging film makers for their place in industry.