Regarding Rights

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Human Rights concerns with PNG reinstating the death penalty

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Image from http://www.amnesty.ie/about-us

Image from http://www.amnesty.ie/about-us

By Betheli O’Carroll

TC Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has amended their legislation to extend the death penalty to cover more criminal offences. Previously, the death penalty was applicable to treason, wilful murder, piracy, and ‘attempted piracy with personal violence’ in PNG,[1] but it has not been used in practice for more than 50 years.[2] Consequently, Amnesty International, which describes the death penalty as ‘the ultimate denial of human rights… the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice’,[3] currently classifies PNG as ‘abolitionist in practice’.[4] In 2013, however, PNG legislated to extend the death penalty to crimes of aggravated rape, ‘robbery with violence’, and ‘sorcery-related killings’.[5]

These changes are a serious regression at a time when the international community is increasingly concerned about protecting human rights, including through the revocation of the death penalty. For example, within the last eight years the death penalty has been abolished in the US states of Connecticut, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland and New Mexico.[6] PNG, however, is taking a hard-line approach to the issue and is apparently planning to execute people as early as this year[7] (at present there are 13 people on death row in the country[8]). Kerenga Kua, the PNG Justice Minister, reportedly ‘told parliament he will enforce the nation’s death penalty laws’[9] and allegedly said that the people currently on death row will be executed this year.[10] Mr Kua has also stated that PNG has ‘a serious law and order problem. So far, nobody has come up with an effective solution. My invitation to those critics is this: We have a problem that is internationally understood. Rather than criticise, give me a workable solution that I can adopt and then I can be encouraged to abandon this pathway we are taking’.[11]

However, there are many arguments against the death penalty, including that studies demonstrate that it does not deter crime.[12] Furthermore, there is a real risk that innocent people could be executed. In America, more than 140 people on death row have been released and there is evidence that some people executed may have been innocent.[13]

The international human rights community is very concerned with these developments in PNG. The United Nations’ resident coordinator in PNG, Roy Trivedy, has said that ‘[o]ur worry is that a knee-jerk reaction and introduction of something which will actually have massive, massive implications for the whole country will be a retrograde step’.[14] Mr Trivedy said that ‘[t]he right to life is the most fundamental of all of the human rights and if the death penalty is introduced we are likely to see a real setback for human rights’.[15] Similarly, Kate Schutze, Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher, has said it is ‘state-sanctioned violence’ and ‘a massive retrograde step by Papua New Guinea to say they plan to implement the death penalty again when they haven’t done so there for nearly sixty years’.[16] Christof Heyns, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said he was ‘concerned about the possible resumption of executions in Papua New Guinea which may result in violations of international law’.[17]

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that ‘[e]veryone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’. Similarly, Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights holds that ‘[e]very human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life’. These provisions reinforce the international recognition of the importance of individual life and the necessity of its protection.

Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights goes on to specifically address the issue of the death penalty. It states that ‘[i]n countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime…’ Despite this provision, PNG has introduced the death penalty for some crimes which are arguably not ‘the most serious’. For example, while robbery with violence is abhorrent, it is arguably not one of ‘the most serious crimes’, which would presumably usually be reserved for offences like murder.

Under the former PNG legislation, hanging was the only method of execution.[18] However, the 2013 amendments provided that persons sentenced to the death penalty could additionally be executed by way of lethal injection, electrocution, a firing squad, or being deprived of oxygen.[19] These methods of execution are of serious concern. For example, issues with hanging include that it needs to be done with precise calculations or death may not be instantaneous.[20] Furthermore, electrocution is concerning because a person may need ‘more than one blast, despite severe damage to internal organs’.[21]

The PNG Constitutional Law Reform Commission travelled to countries like Singapore, the United States, Indonesia, and Thailand in order to recommend the most suitable method of execution.[22] In 2014 PNG further amended their laws. The Criminal Code (Amendment) Bill 2014 was passed on 13 February 2014 and reportedly specifies that lethal injection is the preferred method for carrying out the death sentence in Papua New Guinea.[23] The intention to reinstate the death penalty in this manner is particularly concerning given the recent problems in administering the lethal injection in America. Earlier this year, Dennis McGuire reportedly ‘appeared to gasp and convulse for roughly 10 minutes before he died…by lethal injection using a new combination of drugs’.[24] Similarly, Clayton Lockett was alive for more than 40 minutes after he was given the first lethal drug.[25]

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that there is ‘a trend against capital punishment which has grown stronger across regions, legal traditions and customs…the taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict on another, even when backed by legal process’.[26] Yet PNG is planning to go against this trend and implement an irreversible method of punishment that they have not used in more than half a century. As Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director, said; ‘[b]y passing these death penalty laws today, Papua New Guinea will find it is on the losing side of history’.[27] Hopefully, PNG will reconsider its reimplementation of the death penalty before anyone is executed.


[1] Criminal Code Act 1974, ss 37, 81, 82, 299.

[2] It was reportedly last used in 1957: News.com.au, ‘PNG will enforce death penalty’, 22 November 2013 <http://www.news.com.au/national/breaking-news/png-will-enforce-death-penalty/story-e6frfku9-1226765907692>

[3] Amnesty International, ‘Facts on the Death Penalty’ <http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty/myths-facts/facts>

[4] Amnesty International, ‘Death Penalty: Countries Abolitionist in Practice’ <http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty/countries-abolitionist-in-practice>

[5] ABC News, ‘PNG death penalty condemned as ‘barbaric by Amnesty International’, 29 May 2013 <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-29/amnesty-international-slams-png-death-penalty-move/4719414>; Island Business, ‘Death laws passed in PNG’, 29 May 2013 <http://www.islandsbusiness.com/news/papua-new-guinea/1354/death-laws-passed-in-png/>; Criminal Code Amendment Act 2013, ss 1, 2, 7.

[6] Washington Post ‘How many states have abolished the death penalty since 2000’, 14 May 2014 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/05/14/how-many-states-have-abolished-the-death-penalty-since-2000/>

[7] Radio New Zealand, ‘PNG says executions will go ahead this year’, 2 January 2014 <http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/programmes/datelinepacific/audio/2583779/png-says-executions-will-go-ahead-this-year>

[8] Ibid.

[9] News.com.au, ‘PNG will enforce death penalty’, 22 November 2013 <http://www.news.com.au/national/breaking-news/png-will-enforce-death-penalty/story-e6frfku9-1226765907692>

[10] Radio New Zealand, ‘PNG says executions will go ahead this year’, 2 January 2014 <http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/programmes/datelinepacific/audio/2583779/png-says-executions-will-go-ahead-this-year>

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kate Schutze, ABC News, ‘Rights group petitions to stop PNG death penalty plans’, 31 May 2013 <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-31/an-rights-group-runs-petition-to-stop-png-death-penalty-plans/4726490>; Death Penalty Focus, ‘Facts’, 31 May 2013 <deathpenalty.org>

[13] Death Penalty Focus, ‘Facts’, 31 May 2013 <deathpenalty.org>

[14] United Nations Association of Australia, ‘UN calls for PNG to rethink death penalty’, 5 February 2014 <http://www.unaa.org.au/un-calls-for-png-to-rethink-death-penalty.html>

[15] Ibid.

[16] ABC News, ‘Rights group petitions to stop PNG death penalty plans’, 31 May 2013 <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-31/an-rights-group-runs-petition-to-stop-png-death-penalty-plans/4726490>

[17] ReliefWeb, ‘”Papua New Guinea: window of opportunity for human rights” – UN human rights expert’, 14 March 2014 <http://reliefweb.int/report/papua-new-guinea/papua-new-guinea-window-opportunity-human-rights-un-human-rights-expert>

[18] Criminal Code Act 1974, ss 597, 614(1).

[19] Radio New Zealand, ‘PNG says executions will go ahead this year’, 2 January 2014 <http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/programmes/datelinepacific/audio/2583779/png-says-executions-will-go-ahead-this-year>; Criminal Code Amendment Act 2013, s 9.

[20] Tom Geoghegan, BBC News Magazine, ‘The search for a ‘humane’ execution’, 14 January 2008 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7183957.stm>

[21] Ibid.

[22] Radio New Zealand, ‘PNG says executions will go ahead this year’, 2 January 2014 <http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/programmes/datelinepacific/audio/2583779/png-says-executions-will-go-ahead-this-year>

[23] ABC News, ‘Lethal injection to be used in PNG capital punishment’, 7 March 2014 <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-06/an-png-chooses-lethal-injection-for-death-penalty/5304380>

[24] Dana Ford and Ashley Fantz, CNN, ‘Controversial execution in Ohio uses new drug combination’, 17 January 2014 <http://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/16/justice/ohio-dennis-mcguire-execution/>

[25] Josh Levs, Ed Payne, and Greg Botelho, CNN, ‘Oklahoma’s botched legal injection marks new front in battle over executions’, 8 September 2014 <http://edition.cnn.com/2014/04/30/us/oklahoma-botched-execution/>

[26] United Nations Secretary General, ‘Secretary-General Welcomes Third Committee’s Death Penalty Moratorium Resolution, Saying Taking of Life ‘Too Absolute’ Even Under Legal Regime’, 21 November 2012 <http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sgsm14661.doc.htm>

[27] Amnesty International, ‘PNG: Progress for women’s rights overshadowed by plans to resume executions’, 29 May 2013 <http://www.amnesty.org.au/news/comments/31907/>

One thought on “Human Rights concerns with PNG reinstating the death penalty

  1. This site is very interesting but i want to highlight some few things here,
    Did our mothers and sisters feel free to move around during the night?
    NO, Why! because death penalty is not effective in our country.

    Also why do our politicians steal millions of kina, because death penalty is not effective in our country.

    A lot of bad things happen because death penalty is not effective in our country.
    Therefore, I personally think that death penalty must be practice in our country

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