Police stand guard in front of Kerobokan Prison in Denpasar, Bali, where Australian drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are currently being held on death row. (AFP Photo/Sonny Tumbelaka)

Commentary: Taking No Prisoners in the Long Struggle for the Right to Live


FEBRUARY 23, 2015

Successive Australian governments and others have failed to demonstratively speak out against the use of the death penalty. It has been largely left to nongovernmental organizations, academics and ordinary people. The media has also failed to make it more than a single story issue up until recently.

All have neglected to advance the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is not a good enough reason to go ahead with the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran or others because we have repeatedly neglected our obligations to deliver on our commitments to progress. Signing the ICCPR Treaty is the commitment that we all made, endorsed by both Indonesia and Australia as well as most of the world.

The death penalty has diminished use now; it has failed as a deterrent in the world and there is no argument about that, despite the frustrating spike in its recent use. Indonesia’s short-lived moratorium was testament to its ability to save Indonesians faced with death sentences abroad for murder and drug charges, while exhibiting mercy at home during that time.

The Constitutional Court (MK) has acknowledged the shift away from the death penalty as evidenced in their decisions about the right to life and good behavior as a qualifier for clemency.

Is it not an idealistic expectation that modern democracies and the free world lead global change according to treaties, which are willingly signed as a commitment to act. Why bother signing treaties if we do not commit to behaving as inspirational instruments of good where nobody gets left behind?

I lived through the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, the so-called land of the free and home of the brave. It was highly controversial and destabilizing, at the time causing riots, death and huge division across the country.

The governments of some states challenged the president’s commitment to freedom and soldiers were called out to deliver an end to segregation. It was ordinary people like Rosa Parks and others who showed up to ensure that the government delivered. They had to forge a new path to lead toward our vision that all men were created equal.

More than 50 years later, with President Barack Obama now closing out his second and final term, we are still working on that vision and it escapes us from time to time. We should not, however, point to the United States for its record on human rights and follow their behavior; we are not done yet.

As a human race we have never let the tyranny of distance stop us from progressing toward destinations or visions, whether it was a trip to the moon or freedom of speech. We continue to press for human rights and now the world is paused, holding its collective breath, hopeful of progress and an enlightened approach; not more killing.

The real job of promoting human rights seems to have been left to ordinary people now — and it often is. We are reminded by US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

And it appears that some thoughtful, committed citizens are now showing up en masse.

It has been made easier for some to accept the lines drawn over the use of the death penalty because of the near miraculous inmate-led reformation work that has occurred inside the walls of Kerobokan prison in Denpasar, Bali. But we are on a journey and it should not be through the destruction of Sukumaran and Chan, but with them as symbols of the direction that we set when we signed the ICCPR.

Let’s face it: The drug traffickers that existed in Sukumaran and Chan died 10 years ago. Gone. Indonesia executed those characters when they arrested them and threw them into Kerobokan Prison.

But their renewal as humanitarians is like the lotus flower, which grows in muddy water. It is this environment that gives forth the flower’s first and most literal meaning, rising above the murk to achieve enlightenment.

This period will forever be known now as the tipping point, not as a deterrent but toward the right to life, thanks to Chan and Sukumaran’s efforts. There will be no turning back and the ICCPR is closer to being realized because of the outcomes that the two’s work have provided.

Amazingly, their process has indirectly succeeded in temporarily holding up the executions of others.

They have inadvertently delivered on our commitments of the right to live. And with the recent arrests of some members of the police caught trafficking drugs, Indonesia will find it more and more challenging to continue to deliver the death penalty to its own citizens for what the UN clearly defines as “economic crimes.”

While countries certainly have their sovereignty, if one country can have a life or death impact on a neighbor’s citizens, we can always expect a strong reaction. It was the global opposition and sanctions against apartheid that freed Nelson Mandela, convicted of murder and terrorism charges and sentenced to life — good thing he wasn’t executed as was widely recommended at the time.

Indonesia vigorously defends its citizens, facing death sentences for murder and drug trafficking crimes in other countries. Indonesia has been a champion for its own people and not many others, while Australia has done the same now. Politicians, while very powerful and important, are also temporary and not always representative of the winds of change but caught up in a perception of power.

We have all been operating with government diplomacy that has been occasionally influenced by misunderstanding and trepidation. How do ordinary people even know what has been happening with negotiations when it is all been done “behind the scenes?”

The current public outcry is a voice of frustration from lack of information and a feeling of hopelessness. The strong spirit to stand up when all is lost is not limited to Australians, but is a most human trait that we should cherish and foster. How else do we expect to survive this new century with the challenges ahead?

The formal academic assessment of Chan and Sukuraman’s  reformation work by Indonesian as well as international scholars has made a start and is gathering momentum, especially inside Indonesia.

It is through this kind of research that we grow as people and inspire change that would otherwise seem impossible or just too hard.

It is a similar process as a medical discovery. Postponing executions for everyone would allow a thorough review of what works, gain effective insight into what is possible to help with Indonesia’s “drug emergency.”

One thing is for sure: if we continue to do the same, we will get the same results.

While we have become bogged down by unnecessary and dangerous escalation due to words, the decision to execute is just that: a decision. There is no requirement to kill. The emergency for youth is being addressed inside Kerobokan prison by Chan and Sukumaran with a swarm of testimonials being received now as academic case studies, leading to an approach that would have global support if we are serious about “saving the world.”

And neighboring countries will continue to send assistance, as always, at times of adversity because we care about the misery of people not buying the friendship of a government. It was never about that.

There is no doubt now that the execution of Chan, Sukumaran and any others will be felt as a setback in the region by governments and by ordinary people who operate with free will and elect those governments. It’s not too late to move to higher ground, to not become trapped by the rush of flood waters. Life lines are being thrown from many directions and we only have to grab on so that we may all move toward a safer place together.

The real foe here is not drugs and people at all, but misery and loss of humanity. Let’s have a war against that and make a real start to save the world.

Mary Farrow is director of the Center of Resilience and a community development specialist