The Addiction of Southeast Asia to the Death Penalty

The United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution calling for a moratorium on capital punishment on November 17. It passed with overwhelming support: 120 nations voted in favor of the resolution that urged nations to restrict the use of the death penalty with the ultimate goal of abolition.
Among the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, only Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines voted in favor of the resolution, which was a peculiar fact. Singapore and Brunei voted against it, while the other five nations, including some of the region’s most avid death penalty users, abstained.
The United Nations vote demonstrates a growing international consensus against the death penalty. According to a resolution passed by the General Assembly in December 2007, there is no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty, and any miscarriage or failure of justice in the implementation of the death penalty is irreversible and irreparable.
In spite of the tireless efforts of the region’s death penalty abolitionists, the vote highlighted Southeast Asia’s continued use and defense of capital punishment. Singapore’s placement in the NO column comes as no surprise to begin with. Anyone who has descended into Changi Airport in Singapore will be familiar with the airlines’ cheerful reminder that drug trafficking offenses in Singapore carry the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, Singapore is one of four nations that have executed drug offenders in recent years. According to reports, there are fifty individuals on death row who have exhausted all appeals.
In addition, the city-state has been one of the most forthright and assured defenders of the death penalty as a punishment for serious crimes. This was reflected in Singapore’s introduction of an amendment to the United Nations resolution asserting the sovereign right of all nations to develop their own legal systems, including the determination of appropriate legal penalties. The amendment was approved with 96 member states in favor.
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Some of the nations that abstained from voting continue to impose the death penalty. Take Indonesia. Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes that the country has approximately 274 individuals on death row, including 60 individuals who have been there for more than ten years. In 2019, Indonesian courts imposed a minimum of 80 death sentences, up from 48 in 2018.
Vietnam and Laos, two other nations that abstained in the U.N. vote, do not make public their death penalty statistics. HRW estimates that Vietnam executed as many as 429 individuals between 2013 and 2016.
Even Southeast Asian nations that supported the United Nations resolution are questionable allies of abolition. Malaysia is home to approximately 1,324 individuals on death row. The reformist government that was elected in 2018 initially pledged to abolish the death penalty, but this has since been watered down to a promise to abolish the mandatory use of the death penalty — a small step in the right direction.
The Philippines abolished the death penalty in 2006, but since assuming office in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly threatened to reinstate it, especially for drug-related offenses. In fact, one could argue that Duterte has introduced a de facto form of capital punishment in his violent war on drugs, which according to one estimate has resulted in the deaths of more than 12,000 people, many of whom were innocent, since 2016.
Cambodia, a country whose government is not generally recognized as a staunch defender of human rights, has possibly the best record on capital punishment. Prior to the 1992-93 arrival of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, the country abolished the death penalty. In fact, given that Prime Minister Hun Sen has largely undermined the democratic institutions introduced by the U.N. mission, the death penalty ban may prove to be its most enduring legacy.
Why is Southeast Asia so obsessed with the death penalty? On one level, the region’s governments continue to adhere to an antiquated zero-tolerance policy towards crime, despite scant evidence that capital punishment is an effective deterrent. As evidenced by the language of Singapore’s proposed amendment to the U.N. resolution, the issue has also elicited an anti-colonial reflex in some Southeast Asian nations, whose response to foreign criticism has been to dig their heels in.
Regardless of the causes, the outcome of the most recent U.N. vote indicates that it will be some time before Southeast Asian nations move toward complete abolition of the death penalty.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Singapore-sponsored amendment to the United Nations resolution failed to pass. In fact, 95 member states supported the adoption of the amendment. The error has been corrected in the article.


The region remains a global outlier in terms of the use of capital punishment.

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