By Andrew Loh
Singapore lawyer, Mr M Ravi, has been invited by the United Nations to attend its consultation with experts on the various issues relating to the imposition and implementation of the death penalty.
The 2-day session, to be held at Harvard Law School, United States, on the 25 and 26 of June, will place particular emphasis on the notion of the “most serious crimes” for which the death penalty continues to be imposed.
The invitation to Mr Ravi is from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Mr Christof Heyns; and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Mr Juan Méndez.
Others who have also been invited to the consultation include representatives from Amnesty International, the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (Uganda), the International Harm Reduction Association, the International Commission against the Death Penalty, and the Center for International Human Rights, among others.
Three key issues will dominate the discussions:
- The notion of the “most serious crimes”. The session will discuss the ways in which it has been applied by domestic legislators and courts, and the remaining challenges.
- Complicity: Under this item, experts will focus on different forms of State complicity in the imposition and implementation of the death penalty.
- The death penalty and torture. The experts will examine the circumstances under which the methods of execution of the death penalty, on the one hand, and the death row phenomenon, on the other hand, may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
The results of the consultation will be incorporated in the Special Rapporteurs’ reports on the question of the death penalty to be presented before the United Nations General Assembly at its 67th regular session in October 2012.
The report by Mr Heyns will address a number of issues relating to the death penalty, including the definition and scope of “most serious crimes”, the statistics on executions and instances of inter-state cooperation facilitating the imposition of the death penalty.
The report by Mr Méndez will address methods of execution as possibly constituting torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; as well as the death row phenomenon and the circumstances under which it could amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Regarding the implementation of the death penalty, special attention will be paid to the relevant jurisprudence and criteria to determine under which circumstances the implementation of the death penalty, the death row phenomenon, and the methods of execution may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
The overall goal of the meeting is to reflect upon the extent to which the imposition and implementation of the death penalty comply with the existing international standards. Experts will address the remaining protection gaps and discrepancies in the imposition and implementation of the death penalty.
Mr Ravi, widely recognised as the island state’s most prominent human rights lawyer, told publichouse.sg that he is “pleasantly surprised” by the invitation. “They have so many countries to worry about and yet they have selected Singapore,” he says. “This report will have an impact in the way UN deals with the matter [of the death penalty].”
“This is the first time in 10 years of struggle to abolish the mandatory death penalty [in Singapore] that I’m meeting the UN Rapporteurs directly,” he adds.
Mr Ravi has been involved in some of Singapore’s most contentious death row cases, most notably his 4-year fight in the courts to save Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian drug trafficker sentenced to death in Singapore in 2008. Yong is currently incarcerated in Singapore’s death row and has lost all the battles in the courts. His only chance of avoiding death is through a clemency from the president.
In 2010, Singapore opposed the resolution by the UN General Assembly for a moratorium on the death penalty. Singapore introduced one of three amendments to the draft resolution before the vote, aimed at softening the language. The amendment proposed adding that the General Assembly “reaffirms the sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal systems.” The amendment was rejected, and the resolution eventually passed. Singapore’s objection to the resolution, however, has left many Singaporean activists and anti-death penalty supporters disappointed.
Singapore continues to defend its use of capital punishment, which is carried out through hanging. In February last year, the city state submitted its report on the country’s human rights track record to the United Nations, as part of a review of all UN member states. Defending its use of the death penalty, the Singapore government said it “considers capital punishment as a criminal justice issue, rather than a human rights one.” It also said the punishment “is imposed only for the most serious of crimes.”
Campaigners, however, see it differently, especially when it comes to drug traffickers. Singapore’s notorious Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), for example, has come under criticism for its presumption clauses, which effectively turns the basic tenet of justice – that one is innocent until proven guilty – on its head.
It has been an uphill battle for campaigners like Mr Ravi. But he is not deterred. This invitation to make representations to the UN is seen by anti-death penalty supporters as another step in the campaign to eventually have capital punishment abolished from Singapore’s law books. Mr Ravi hopes that through such engagement with the UN, the public will get to understand international advocacy and the fact that the UN plays a crucial role in raising state accountability vis a vis the death penalty.