Every Pacific Island state apart from PNG and Tonga has abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
On 30 July, 2021, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea (PNG) quashed the National Court’s temporary stay of executions for all people sentenced to death.
The judgment has cleared a major obstacle to carrying out death sentences for the first time in nearly 70 years. It makes execution a real possibility for 15 individuals who are on death row.
From the PNG government’s perspective, there remain rather brutal administrative considerations – regulations authorising officers to carry out executions, and nominating the “most possible” of the approved methods of execution under law.
The then Australian administration abolished the death penalty in PNG in 1970. The PNG government reintroduced it in 1991.
Despite its reintroduction in law, PNG has not carried out any executions since 1954. Even so, the death penalty, or at least the threat of its implementation, has been used as a form of social control, and has remained part of PNG’s criminal justice system. As of August 2021, there are 15 prisoners on death row.
In the past 10 years, the death penalty has been part of the domestic political debate in PNG. In 2013, the parliament expanded the scope of the death penalty. Sorcery-related murder, aggravated rape, and robbery all became punishable by death under the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act 2013.
In 2015, the PNG cabinet endorsed guidelines for execution by approving three modes of execution: hanging, lethal injection, and firing squad. It also determined the location for the execution.
Three years later, the judiciary applied the revised criminal code by sentencing eight men to death for sorcery-related murder.
By 2020 it had become such a part of political discussion that the government promised a nationwide consultation to examine the level of public support for the death penalty.
On the international stage, PNG has so far resisted the trend towards abolition of the death penalty. At its most recent UN Universal Periodic Review (2016), PNG did not accept recommendations to move away from the death penalty.
Since 2007, PNG has voted against, or abstained from voting on, the UN General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.
Indeed, in 2020, PNG actively opposed the resolution, appearing to commit itself to a position in direct tension with the abolitionist majority of the international community.
PNG’s justification for retaining the death penalty has centred on it being an effective deterrent to heinous crimes. In 2013, the then prime minister, Peter O’Neill, proposed the expanded use of the death penalty to tackle violent crimes. He claimed the “majority of our people are demanding it”. The then opposition leader, Belden Namah, also supported these measures, viewing it as an effective deterrent.
Resorting to increasing the severity of punishment to tackle serious crime has achieved little across different jurisdictions. These include the US, the UK and, more recently, Australia. In this sense, there’s nothing new in PNG attempting to solve problems of violence through the use of harsher criminal punishments. But a consequence of PNG’s punitive turn could be dire.
There’s no doubt PNG experiences a severe range of violent crime, including tribal fighting and sorcery-related deaths. In violence related to sorcery accusations, many of the victims are women who have been gang-raped and sometimes beaten or burnt to death. But victims are reluctant to report these crimes to police for fear of being targeted again, or of their family being attacked. Unless beliefs about sorcery change, it’s unlikely any criminal punishment will serve to curtail violent incidents, especially if the community doesn’t trust the police to intervene and offer protection to the victims.
Furthermore, there’s no scientific evidence that proves the death penalty is an effective deterrent compared with other sentences such as life imprisonment.
Two-thirds of countries have abolished the death penalty or haven’t executed anyone for 10 years or more. While Asia lags behind this global trend, the Pacific Island countries are at the forefront of the abolitionist movement.
Every Pacific Island state apart from PNG and Tonga has abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes. If PNG was to resume executions, it would entrench itself as an outlier among Pacific Island states.
PNG is not bound to proceed with executions. In the Supreme Court’s judgment, Justice Manuhu’s dissent is particularly instructive. He endorsed the National Court’s finding that:
“[…] it is now too late to execute any of these prisoners, as their right of protection against inhuman punishment has been infringed.”
Indeed, of the 15 on death row in PNG, 13 have been in prison for more than five years. Some have been there for more than 17 years.
PNG is next scheduled to participate in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review in October 2021. It will be an opportunity for a direct and meaningful diplomatic exchange with abolitionist states.
Taking steps towards the abolition of the death penalty at law would not constitute a substantial change for the PNG community, given its moratorium for nearly 70 years.
This article first appeared in Monash Lens and was used with permission.
Mai is the inaugural director of Eleos Justice and her academic focus is on the death penalty. She is a social scientist by training and has led and worked on projects on the death penalty in Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. Her research topics include the death penalty, war on drugs, extra-judicial killings, miscarriages of justice, policing, and international human rights law.
Matthew is a barrister and a senior fellow at Monash University. He’s responsible for leading Eleos Justice’s UN Advocacy Project within the Faculty of Law. In 2019, he was one of Australia’s civil society representatives to the UN Human Rights Council, where he worked alongside Australia’s Permanent Mission to the UN in order to secure the council’s adoption of the Resolution on the Question of the Death Penalty. Matthew is a former president of Reprieve Australia (now the Capital Punishment Justice Project). In 2021, he was elected as President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.