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The long road to abolishing the death penalty in South East Asia: A call for renewed action and dialogue

Opinion: Despite the formidable challenges in South East Asia, the fight against capital punishment persists. As we mark the 21st World Day Against the Death Penalty, we reflect on the region’s mixed landscape: from Malaysia’s progressive debates to the staunch retentionist stance of others.

Harnessing local efforts and international cooperation can reshape the narrative on this crucial human rights issue.

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by Simone Galimberti

Today is the 21st World Day against the Death Penalty, and a pathway towards abolition of this cruel measure in the South East Asia is not unimaginable.

I don’t pen these words in response to vast mobilizations against capital punishment sweeping the region. Quite the contrary.

Regrettably, we’re far from achieving that level of awareness and mobilization. This is a region where championing human rights hasn’t historically been viewed as fashionable or commendable.

Yet, there’s a genuine opportunity to ignite a substantive conversation about the death penalty.

Over the last two years, Malaysia has started an important, I would say, almost exemplary process of discussing and debating the issue.

The final step of this journey was the official decision to do away with the mandatory death penalty when the lower house of the parliament in Putrajaya, the Dewan Rakyat, approved the Abolition of Mandatory Death Penalty Bill 2023 back in April.

The journey there has not been completed, as capital punishment remains on the books. However, what happened in Malaysia can truly become a blueprint for other nations in the region and in the wider Asia Pacific to introspect and reflect.

Moreover, let’s not forget that a nation like Brunei, certainly not a paragon in terms of upholding and respecting human rights, has, for decades, a moratorium in place.

In addition, another peer in the league of non-democratic nations of South East Asia, Cambodia, abolished capital punishment in 1989 even though the decision was a consequence of the pacification process experienced by the country after decades of bloodbath.

Last but not least, in 2006, the Philippines, under the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, also got rid of it.

It is true in many nations like Singapore and Indonesia, the concept of capital punishment seems unassailable.

In these countries, any hope of moving closer to the path taken by Malaysia could be easily dismissed as wishful thinking.

In Jakarta, President Jokowi has been flip-flopping for years about making or not making the bold decision to abolish the death penalty.

Mostly, in all fairness, in this regard, he has been a real disappointment even though in April this year, he granted clemency to a woman who had been in jail for twenty years on a charge of drug smuggling.

In Singapore, the official narrative promoted by the People’s Action Party (PAP) government in favour of one of the strictest death penalty regimes is still holding strong.

At the same time, a glimmer of hope is emerging as the new generations are starting to question its fairness, especially the way it is applied.

In this mixed landscape, it will still take a lot of time to shift the general perception towards capital punishment in a region that is quite systematic. Neglects and usurps the rights of its citizens.

Still, it is high time not to give up on the hope that real change can happen.

Amid the horrors, discomfort and frustration coming from reading news about executions happening in the region, activists, academicians, and all those who care about human rights have to re-double their efforts.

A new strategy is needed, and a new multilayer approach must emerge.

We need to learn how to engage local people with a particular focus on youngsters ones.

First, we need to be able to connect the dots.

Capital punishment does not exist in isolation from other type of human rights abuses.

Perhaps the only exception is Japan, a fully democratic country embracing rule of law but still stubbornly conservative in matters related to the death sentence where it remains law.

Normally, a place that still has the death penalty on the books, is where also other human rights are not highly valued nor generally upheld.

A fully civilized nation is a place where all the types of abuses, including the ones perpetrated by the governments, as it is the case of capital punishment, are barred.

So, focusing on human rights as a whole framework, rather than doing it selectively and fragmentally, remains paramount.

Second, it is essential to find novel ways to create an interest, a genuine interest in them among youths.

Civic education, on this regard, should not be seen just as a promotion of patriotism but rather, it should also be focused on imparting key lessons on inalienable rights that people should enjoy.

The civil society from the region must step up but without support from the international community, the task remains impossible.

That’s why a third element, complementary to the former two, could come from the international community, outside and within the ASEAN region.

If countries in the West, those who, at least on paper, profess to uphold a type of foreign policy centred on human rights, start doing something, the beginning of a change would be imaginable.

Unable to directly criticize, due to geopolitical and other economic interests, their retentionist counterparts, these nations should enhance their “people to people” diplomacy.

The so-called Track 2 and Track 3 diplomacy could offer some viable options to provide financial support and “political” coverage to the activists on the ground.

Official dialogues on human rights, like the one recently held in Brussels between the European Union (EU) and ASEAN, even if they do not bring any breakthroughs, must be maintained and strengthened.

Yet expectations from the most progressive human rights upholders should be tempered down.

If so, can we honestly imagine that those nations in the region with some encouraging track records on human rights will be able and willing to elevate the issue among their peers?

As improbable as it is, I would love to hear Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam speaking publicly on why a nation should avoid, at any cost, the use of capital punishment or how his nation has not get overflowed with drugs since the moratorium on the death penalty is in place.

Perhaps the only one with the moral authority to initiate the debate in the region on abolition is Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

He could lead a coalition of willing nations in the region keen to focus not only on the abolition of the death penalty but on the overall importance of human rights in the 21st century.

Ultimately, even if these initiatives will ever materialize, one thing is clear: the battle must be won locally, on the ground.

There is no external support that can truly alter the overall conversation and flip the official narrative being promoted by the retentionist governments.

It’s crucial to broaden the discussion within the general public, emphasizing that debating and potentially abolishing capital punishment doesn’t inherently lead to an increase in crime.

It should also be clarified that abolishing the death penalty doesn’t inevitably mean that millions of citizens’ lives will be endangered or that drugs will flood into their cities.

The conversation about capital punishment among citizens and among leaders won’t be easy.

Yet, no matter the hard journey ahead towards its full abolishment in South East Asia, some ways must be tried to achieve it.

We saw that the region offers some positive examples.

As imperfect as they are, these should provide hope to those in the region who have stopped believing that change is possible and achievable in the fight against capital punishment.

Simone Galimberti writes on democracy, social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.

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