Friday, 23 September 2016

Take more balanced view on death penalty, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan urges world leaders

By Jeremy Au Yong, US Bureau Chief, The Straits Times, 22 Sep 2016

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has called on world leaders to take a more balanced assessment of the death penalty, as he explained Singapore’s approach to capital punishment.

Speaking at a meeting taking place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on Wednesday (Sept 21), he pushed back against calls for all countries to abolish the death penalty.

This debate is a heated, painful and emotional one but I just ask members... to respectfully reflect on the views expressed, the diversity of the circumstances and the impact on the ground. And to give to each state its sovereign right to choose the most appropriate judicial approach so that we can adopt a more balanced perspective on this complex issue,” he said.

At the opening of the meeting, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon had urged all countries to cease capital punishment. “The world reached a major turning point in 2007 when the general assembly called for a worldwide moratorium,'' he said.

"Since then the movement against capital punishment has been growing... I am gravely concerned that some countries are suddenly resuming executions. Others are considering reintroducing the death penalty. We have to keep up the fight for the right to life,” he added.

Singapore has often been among the minority of dissenting voices on the issue of the death penalty at the UN. Wednesday's event was billed as a forum to focus on the impact of the death penalty on the families of murder victims, children of the condemned, prison personnel who oversee executions and others. Speakers on the panel had placards on the table saying #EndExecutions.

At a similar event in 2014, then Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam had dismissed the portrayal of the issue as one of “taking lives versus not taking lives”.

Dr Balakrishnan reiterated that point in his speech: “I think our starting shared position has to be that all human life is sacred... The immediate question that confronts all of us, whether within or without this room is whether the death penalty, within the proper context, and in strictly limited circumstances plays any role in protecting the sanctity of life.”

He also outlined Singapore’s approach to the use of the death penalty and why it continues to apply to drug crimes.

“In Singapore, the death penalty remains on our statute books but it is applied and strictly in the context of an unwavering commitment to the rule of law... resting on a strong and independent judiciary, there must be fair, transparent laws and due process. The way we have implemented our judicial system in Singapore has been pivotal in our efforts to foster a peaceful, safe, harmonious and inclusive society,” he said.

“In our view, and we humbly submit it for your consideration, capital punishment for drugs-related offences and for murder has been a key element in keeping Singapore drug free and keeping Singapore safe. Singapore is probably one of the few countries in the world which has successfully fought this drug problem. We do not have slums, we do not have ghettoes, we do not have no-go zones for the police.The death penalty has deterred major drug syndicates from establishing themselves in Singapore, and successfully kept the drug situation under control.”

Dr Balakrishnan also said that there was strong support from Singaporeans for capital punishment to remain on the books, but he added that the government did not take this support for granted.

“From time to time we will continually to review our legislation and make changes according to our circumstances,” he said.

Maintaining the legitimacy of capital punishment in Singapore
Singapore's stance on the death penalty still firm, yet has also evolved, with the introduction of discretionary regime
By Eugene K. B. Tan For The Straits Times, 3 Oct 2016

In clockwork fashion since 2008, the United Nations General Assembly has deliberated every two years the question of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, with a view to abolishing it. As the death penalty remains in our statutes, Singapore is a prominent retentionist state in the serious debate on the death penalty.

Last month, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan put forth Singapore's "contrarian views" on the death penalty at a high-level side event at the assembly.

Noting that the debate is a "heated, painful and emotional one", he affirmed Singapore's belief that "all human life is sacred" and the paramount objective to protect all human life.

Like his predecessor in 2014, he posited that the relevant question in the debate on the death penalty was "whether in very limited circumstances, it is legitimate to have the death penalty so that the larger interest of society is served".

Thus, the rights of the offenders must be weighed against the rights of the victims and their families, and the "broader rights of the community and society to live in peace and security".

Dr Balakrishnan stated that capital punishment for certain drug-related offences and for murder is a "key element" in keeping Singapore drug-free and safe. He reiterated that every state has the sovereign right and duty "to decide for itself what works, and to take into account its own circumstances".

Singapore's position on the death penalty is more nuanced than the abolitionists' austere characterisation of states that retain it as essentially having an abiding commitment to the death penalty. In 2012, Parliament made significant amendments to the Penal Code and the Misuse of Drugs Act, marking a shift from the longstanding mandatory to a discretionary death penalty system.

In murder where the killing was unintentional, the court has the discretion to sentence the accused to death or life imprisonment. The court may also order caning in cases where the sentence is life imprisonment.

Similarly, the Act provides that if a person was convicted of drug trafficking, the death penalty would not be imposed if two conditions are fulfilled. First, he must have only been a courier, not involved in any other activity related to the supply or distribution of drugs. Second, he had substantively cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau, or he has a mental disability, which substantially impaired his appreciation of the gravity of drug trafficking.

These amendments do not lessen the severity of drug trafficking offences. They, however, recognise that couriers, a crucial part of the illicit drugs supply chain, are morally less culpable than the drug syndicate leaders who direct drug couriers. Executing drug mules will not deal with the root causes of the serious crime of drug trafficking.

The Government has determined that the mandatory death penalty (MDP) may not be needed for all types of serious crimes. This is an important first step, notwithstanding the attraction and force of the MDP was its unequivocal demonstration of zero tolerance and resolve in maximum deterrence.

Yet, the shift to the discretionary death penalty regime should not be misconstrued as Singapore letting up on drug trafficking and murders. Instead, this shift was necessary to retain public confidence and legitimacy in our administration of criminal justice.

Giving our Supreme Court judges the discretion in sentencing empowers them to weigh the relevant factors and the mitigating circumstances, and to individualise sentencing. By tempering justice with mercy, the punishment meted out can better fit the crime, and offenders given a second chance in appropriate cases.

To be sure, there are increasing - and more strident - calls for the complete abolishment of the death penalty. In the past few years, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has urged UN member states to consider whether the death penalty fails to respect the inherent dignity of the person, causes severe mental and physical pain and suffering, and amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.

Singapore has rejected the link between the death penalty and torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

The European Union and the UN have called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. The moratorium has gained traction, as shown by the voting records at the UN assembly. In 2014, the draft on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty was adopted with a recorded vote of 117 in favour to 37 against, with 34 abstentions. In 2012, it was 110-39-36. In 2010, it was 107-38-36.

Singapore has consistently voted against the resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Besides Singapore, the list of retentionist states include Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Nevertheless, Singapore has not ignored or disregarded the international developments. While there is still no international consensus against the death penalty, the list of abolitionist states grows slowly but surely, suggesting that there might be inexorable movement towards its abolition.

Singapore's execution figures have declined significantly since the 1990s but the overall crime situation has not worsened; in many respects, it has improved. Could our tough stance on crime continue to work well without the death penalty?

Given the conflicting empirical data elsewhere, however, both abolitionists and retentionists have immense difficulties proving their case persuasively and compellingly. Statistics alone will not resolve the deep divide between the two camps.

The Singapore Court of Appeal has consistently ruled that the MDP is constitutional and not in breach of the fundamental liberties guaranteed by the Singapore Constitution. On whether capital punishment legislation should be modified or repealed, it took the view that these "policy issues… in the exercise of its legislative powers… is for Parliament, and not the courts, to decide on the appropriateness or suitability of the MDP as a form of punishment for serious criminal offences".

I regard the discretionary death penalty regime as a determined expression at maintaining the legitimacy of our capital punishment regime. More significantly, it manifests our ability to get out of the force of habit, convenience, and reliance on our long-held dogma that the MDP is necessary to deal with the most serious crimes.

There is, as yet, no public clamour in Singapore for abolishing the death penalty. While there is no authoritative study on public attitudes towards the death penalty, various past surveys point to support for its retention. There appears to be healthy public trust and confidence that the death penalty regime in Singapore has the requisite deterrent effect on criminals and has sufficient safeguards.

Nonetheless, the authorities face the continuing imperative of demonstrating that the death penalty regime works well and is in accord with societal values and norms. In this regard, we must not lose sight of the value and sanctity of life even as we calibrate the appropriate balance of rights and responsibilities between those who commit serious crimes, and the victims and their families, and the rest of society.

Regular and robust reviews are necessary to evaluate the need and use of the death penalty as an integral part of the administration of criminal justice in Singapore.

Our no-nonsense approach towards crime has made security and order defining features of our society.

Keeping our criminal justice system relevant and legitimate in the face of changing realities and the rapidly evolving crime situation is vital in maintaining public confidence, while also keeping faith with the values that Singaporeans regard as important.

The writer is associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law.

* Most Singaporeans support death penalty, but less so for certain cases: Survey
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 9 Dec 2016

Most Singaporeans are in favour of the death penalty but with exceptions, according to a new survey.

Also, fewer support the death penalty for drug trafficking and firearms in cases where no one dies or is injured.

There is less support for the mandatory death penalty as well.

These findings, released yesterday, follow a United Nations General Assembly debate in September on the death penalty and Singapore giving its judges the discretion, in specified situations, to lift the death penalty for drug couriers.

There is a growing worldwide trend to abolish the death penalty, noted National University of Singapore (NUS) associate law professor Chan Wing Cheong, one of four researchers who headed the study.

"It is important for Singapore to continue to review the death penalty because it is irreversible," he said.

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser, Singapore Management University law don Jack Lee and human rights group Maruah president Braema Mathi also led the study, which polled about 1,500 Singapore citizens aged 18 to 74 between April and May this year.

Singapore's approach to capital punishment was restated when the UN General Assembly debated the issue this year and urged countries to abolish it.

However, four years ago, Singapore had lifted the mandatory death sentence for drug couriers who play a minor role, such as transporting and delivering, and who help the police nab the ringleaders, for instance.

Those who commit murder but did not intend to kill can also escape the gallows.

But the mandatory punishment remains for intentional murder, drug trafficking and firearms-related offences. In such cases, the courts do not have the discretion to decide on a lighter sentence.

The support for the death penalty is as follows: 92 per cent for intentional murder, 88 per cent for discharging a firearm and 86 per cent for drug trafficking.

But when asked whether these same crimes should carry a mandatory death penalty, 47 per cent said "yes" for intentional murder, 36 per cent for firearms offences and 32 per cent for drug trafficking.

People are also more reluctant for the death penalty to be imposed when they know the details of a crime.

The respondents were given 12 scenarios based on real-life cases that ranged from intentional murder to drug trafficking and firearms offences. Each case had either mitigating factors, such as the offender having no prior record, or aggravating factors, like the victim dying.

The respondents chose the death penalty in only one-third of the cases, although all 12 got the mandatory death penalty under the law.

Supporters said they believe it deters would-be offenders from committing serious crimes.

Most who backed the discretionary death penalty gave the reason that circumstances differ, and not every offender deserves to die.

Older Singaporeans and those who are more highly educated are also more likely to support the death penalty in general.

Prof Tan said this may be because the middle-class in Singapore values security highly and believes strongly in meritocracy - that people should be rewarded for hard work, but also punished for wrongdoings.

The support also varies across religions, with Taoists and Buddhists twice as likely to support the death penalty as Protestant Christians. Protestant Christians themselves are twice as likely as Catholics to support the death penalty.

But Prof Chan said people are unlikely to strongly oppose any gradual move towards judges getting more discretion on when to impose the death penalty.

He pointed out that the study shows most people not having strong views for or against the death penalty.

"A very small percentage insists on the present scheme," he said.

Prof Lee added: "Whether or not we move towards abolishing the death penalty, perhaps we should consider whether judges should be given more discretion."

No comments:

Post a Comment