This October 10th, the Singapore Working Group on the Death Penalty is commemorating the 13th World Day Against the Death Penalty in solidarity with all individuals and groups working on the abolition of capital punishment.
Singapore commendably amended its death penalty regime in 2013, but the amendments did not go far enough in abolishing the mandatory aspect of the punishment. It is a fact that the mandatory death penalty still remains and will continue to be applied unless certain conditions are met. Singapore therefore retains its position of having the death penalty for drug smuggling or trafficking.
Death Penalty for Drug Crimes Incompatible with International Law
The United Nations Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, Christof Heyns, and on torture, Juan E. Méndez said recently that executions for drug crimes amount to a violation of international law and are unlawful killings.
Effectiveness of Death Penalty as Deterrence Questioned
There is mounting evidence that the use of the death penalty to address this social ill has been less than effective. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in their 2014 World Drug Report concluded that the death penalty has not been proven to stop drug consumption in society. During the period from 2003 to 2012, the number of people arrested or suspected for drug trafficking and possession for personal use has increased, but the number of users of illicit drugs saw no decrease. Even in Singapore, the Central Narcotics Bureau has reported an overall increase in those arrested for drug abuse in the first half of 2015 compared to the same period last year.
The UNODC and the International Narcotics Control Board, the UN body in charge of monitoring state implementation of the three drug conventions, both have adopted the call for the abolishment of the death penalty on drug crimes. In light of this general failure to reduce drug crime worldwide, the UN General Assembly Special Sessions (UNGASS) on drugs, where the UN will host an international conference on drug policy reform, has been pushed forward to 2016.
Just as many governments are beginning to re-think their hardened approach towards the global “war” against drugs, Singapore also needs to re-think the criminal justice system.
Call for the Newly Formed Cabinet to Exercise Executive Grace
The reality in Singapore is that, while the President exercises the authority to grant clemency in theory, it is in fact the Cabinet which makes the binding recommendation to the President. This was upheld by the Court of Appeal in April 2011. Since Singapore’s independence, only seven clemencies have been granted, with the last being exercised by the late President Ong Teng Cheong.
No transgression is so great that there is no room for mercy and compassion. Any change made to our laws pertaining to crime and punishment understandably takes moral courage from our elected leaders.
Although we firmly believe that the right to decide on pardons should be left in the hands of an elected president, in the light of our current situation we hope that the newly-formed Cabinet will consider each clemency petition with compassion and sympathy for the inmate, and factor in the impact that the death penalty would have.
A step towards the abolition of the death penalty has to involve a proper weighing of the effectiveness of the punishment. Worldwide crime statistics clearly show a reality which contradicts popular belief that the death penalty is an effective deterrence. The newly formed Cabinet has this narrow window of opportunity to re-think a new path for Singapore.
We reiterate our stand that:
- Death is irreversible, and the death penalty is a cruel, inhuman and degrading form of punishment. It is fundamentally against Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”;
- The relatively low level of crime in Singapore cannot be attributed to the enforcement of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments like the death penalty. Presence of higher levels of education, nurturing environments, a culture of non-violence and mutual respect, and other important social factors are also crucial;
- The abolition of the death penalty will contribute to the enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of respect for human rights in Singapore;
We urge the Government therefore to re-examine the use of the death penalty as a deterrence especially in light of,
- Why it has not worked for other nations and the trend toward criminal justice policy reforms which take into account multiple layers of social issues;
- The complexity of factors, both local and international, surrounding the illicit drugs trade and the limited gains in reducing it after decades of effort by law enforcement.
We call on the Government to,
- To impose an indefinite moratorium on all pending executions;
- Convene a special committee comprising all relevant ministries, agencies, legal authorities and experts to conduct a detailed study on the issue and effects of the death penalty, the results of which should be made widely available for public debate and discussion;
- Work towards ratifying the International Covenant on the Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Second Optional Protocol of the ICCPR, aimed at the abolition of the death penalty;
- With due regard to articles 10 and 15 of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), recognise that no persons with disabilities – including persons with mental or intellectual disabilities – should be subjected to the death penalty.
In the year of our Jubilee celebrations, we should mark Singapore’s movement away from the death penalty, and continue to work towards the improvement and reformation of our criminal justice system to prioritise rehabilitation over retribution.
The Singapore Working Group on Death Penalty comprises the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign, We Believe in Second Chances and Think Centre. All three organisations are also members of the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN).
 UN rights experts warn death penalty for drug crimes violates int’l law, available at http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2015/10/un-rights-experts-warn-death-penalty-for-drug-crimes-violates-intl-law/
 ADPAN Statement 2015, available at https://www.facebook.com/ADPANetwork/posts/981539048534197
 CNB Drug Situation Report Jan to Jun 2015, available at http://www.cnb.gov.sg/Libraries/CNB_Newsroom_Files/CNB_2015_mid_year_stats_release.sflb.ashx
 Refer to ADPAN Statement 2015
 Detailed Fact Sheet – Death Penalty and Drug Crimes, World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, available at http://www.worldcoalition.org/media/resourcecenter/EN_WD2015_Factsheet.pdf
 See summary judgement of Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, available at https://www.supremecourt.gov.sg/data/doc/ManagePage/3721/Yong%20Vui%20Kong%20v%20Attorney-General%20CA%20144%202010%20-%20Summary%20Judgement%20by%20Chief%20Justice%20Chan%20Sek%20Keong.pdf
 Two were granted in the term of President Benjamin Sheares, one under President Devan Nair, three under President Wee Kim Wee, and one under President Ong Teng Cheong.
 See International Statistics on Crime and Justice Helsinki 2010, available at www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/Crime-statistics/International_Statistics_on_Crime_and_Justice.pdf