ashthomas//blog: December 2005


Friday, December 02, 2005

Execution of Van Nguyen

The execution this morning of Van Nguyen, the first Australian to be executed overseas in 14 years, has given me cause to think about the death penalty. Jonathan Last, of the Weekly Standard, asks in his blog Galley Slaves about the attitudes of Australians to capital punishment. He quotes a poll that the CNN article cites:

A survey by Morgan Poll conducted on Wednesday night showed 47 percent of Australians believed Nguyen should be executed, 46 percent said the death penalty should not be carried out, and seven percent were undecided.

Australia abolished the death penalty decades ago.

This doesn't quite compute. If Australia reached a real consensus on capital punishment, then who do more people want to see their fellow citizen executed by a foreign government for a reasonably minor drug offense? Is the poll faulty? Do Australians actually favor the death penalty as an institution?

First, I am not sure if Australia did reach a real consensus. Like in the United States, punishment for crime is a state legislative issue, and each state decided to abolish capital punishment individually. Yes, no states continue to have the death penalty, but as the poll cited shows, there is still a significant number of people in the population that supports it, especially with regard to murder:

Only 27% of Australians believed the penalty for murder should be death - this is the lowest ever recorded and down 26% since August 1995. Sixty-six percent of Australians said imprisonment and 7% couldn’t say.

That said, there is in a Australia (a more secular humanist society than the United States) a large degree of respect (right or wrong) for the laws and customs of other countries. That explains the figure that caused Last to scratch his head:

Fifty-seven percent of Australians believe that if an Australian is convicted of trafficking drugs and sentenced to death in another country where the death penalty applies, the death penalty should be carried out, while 36% believe it should not be carried out and 7% are undecided.

However, Australians were divided on whether or not the death penalty should be carried out in the case of convicted drug smuggler Van Nguyen, with 47% believing it should, 46% believing is should not and 7% unable to say.

The difference between the number of people who think that, in principle, an Australian national convicted of a capital crime in another country should be executed and those who think that Van Nguyen should have been executed may be attributed, I think, to the fact that people find it easier to imagine a hypothetical drug trafficker facing that punishment than an actual young man who has been, along with his mother, brother and friends, on our television screens every night.

To answer the question that Last poses, I don't think that Australians do favour the death penalty as an institution. There has been a concerted effort amongst the upper echelons of government and the legal profession to try to find a way to spare Nguyen's life some how. Australia attempted to take Singapore to the International Court of Justice (Singapore refused to join). Diplomats and QCs were in Singapore for weeks negotiating and arguing on his behalf. Nguyen was indicted in a state court in an attempt to have him extradited back to Australia.

Everyone I have spoken to, and myself as well, has articulated their regret that an Australian was executed by a foreign government, but most grudgingly accept that if an Australian commits a crime on the soil of another country, he or she must face the consequences. We don't like that Van Nguyen was executed, but we understand it. We tried to prevent it, but having done our best and failed, we must accept it.