Singapore’s stand on death penalty at UN leaves many angered

Baradan Kuppusamy
03 Dec 07

Singapore’s strong pro-death penalty stand during the November U.N. General Assembly vote on a draft resolution calling for an end to the death penalty has disappointed many and left Singaporeans asking why the city-state is willing to risk international condemnation to pursue the death penalty so publicly as a solution to crime.

“Why is Singapore so ham-fisted in wanting the death penalty when the majority of nations are against it?” asked a senior Singaporean lawyer who declined to be named because his legal business might be penalised.

“We should go with the trend in the world which is to abolish – or at least place a moratorium on – state-sanctioned killing,” he said by telephone from Kuala Lumpur.

“If we can be the first one to commercially fly the Airbus 380, why are we among the last in the world to defend and insist on carrying out state killings?” he said. “After all we pride ourselves as world trend-setters.”

Singapore was one of the few countries that fiercely opposed the moratorium when the vote was taken on Nov 15 with 99 in favour, 52 against and 33 abstentions.

The U.S. and China joined many developing countries, notably from the Islamic world, in voting ‘no’ after an acrimonious debate.

The full 192-member General Assembly is widely expected to endorse the decision, possibly before Christmas, according to diplomats.

Opponents of the moratorium decried what they saw as an attempt by the resolution’s 87 co-sponsors to impose their values on the rest of the world.

They argued that the death penalty was fundamentally a “criminal justice issue” to be decided by national authorities. They saw the resolution as blatant interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

Among the other vocal nations wanting the death penalty were Malaysia, Egypt, and Barbados. The resolution calls for countries which still have the death penalty to introduce a moratorium on executions, with a view to abolishing capital punishment.

Singapore’s U.N. envoy Vanu Menon saw the issue during debate as cosponsors “trying to impose a particular set of beliefs on everyone else”.

Singapore’s strong stand on the death penalty, which is liberally employed in the city-state for murder, drug trafficking and other offences, provoked immediate anger from many long-time Singaporean anti-death penalty activists.

Comments posted on Singaporean blogs and websites immediately afterwards were highly critical describing Singapore, where the press is tightly controlled and open debate rare, as a “busy little bee” defending the death penalty.

“We are all upset that Singapore led the opposition — but are not really surprised,” said Singaporean Sinapan Samydorai, who manages the Think Centre, a Singaporean NGO that champions human rights and an end to capital punishment.

“With over 400 executions since 1991, Singapore taking the lead in the U.N. vote does not really come as a shock,” he told IPS in a telephone interview from Bangkok.

In all, 130 countries have banned the death penalty, and only 25 nations carried out executions last year. “Singapore is a leader in the 25 nation pack,” Samydorai said.

Although U.N. General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, a vote calling for a suspension of the death penalty, backed by a majority of countries, would be a significant statement of changing international opinion.

On average, Singapore sentences between 10 to 20 people to death a year, mostly for drug trafficking, Samydorai said, even though numerous studies proved that the death sentence had little effect on drug trafficking.

“It remains an uphill task in Singapore to abolish the death sentence,” he said, adding there were several reasons influencing Singapore to defend the use of the death penalty in its criminal justice system.

Being 76 percent Chinese, Singapore was heavily influence by the traditional Chinese view which held that harsh punishment deterred crime, restored normalcy and maintained “Confucian peace and harmony”.

“An inherited value system that sees hard, heavy punishment as a solution is at the core of Singapore’s resistance to abolishing the death penalty or even agreeing to a moratorium on executions,” he said.

Singapore also saw the moratorium issue as impinging on its sovereign right as a nation.

Perhaps another reason was that Singapore saw the death penalty as a method of keeping itself “squeaky clean”, free of crime, drugs and “undesirable elements”, he said.

“It is a kind of defensive barrier, an artificial wall to “protect” Singapore,” said Samydorai. “The tragedy is, it is inhuman and it does not work.”

Activists say Singapore as an international city surviving on world trade and financial services should adopt more progressive policies than state killings.

“It must recognise the right to life as contained in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which recognises the inherent right of every person to life,” Samydorai said.

“It cannot any longer justify a criminal justice system that uses the death penalty based on retribution,” he said.

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