The event was broadcasted online via Zoom and streamed live on the University of PNG Facebook. Questions were submitted in advance of the event by interested audience via Sli.do platform. In connection with the event a survey was also conducted to gauge the views and level of thought the audience has given to the death penalty in PNG (https://survey.sogosurvey.com/r/eQOh99). During the event there were 329 hits through Facebook Live. The output from Zoom to Facebook Live was viewed by 1,800 people by 10 October.
The event began with opening remarks from the part of the EU Ambassador to PNG who presented the EU opposition to death penalty in all circumstances. He highlighted that, at international level, there is a turning point in the debate against the death penalty with 74% of the UN member states having already stopped using the death penalty, by either abolishing it or not carrying out executions for a long time, as it is the case in PNG. He welcomed the fact that no death sentence has been carried in PNG since 1950s and highlighted that the EU and is strongly advocating for a move from the current de facto moratorium to abolition.
The panellists explained that the capital punishment is a sensitive issue in PNG. While laws have been put in place to introduce the death penalty, they have not been used. The last execution in PNG was carried out in 1954. In 1970, the Australian Government completely abolished the death penalty but after the independence in 1974, it was reintroduced by the Parliament in 1991 as an amendment to the Criminal Code, specifically for wilful murder. In 2013, the government further amended the Criminal Code Act by introducing three additional forms of serious crimes punishable by death, namely killings related to accusations of sorcery, aggravated rape, and robbery. The amendments were made in response to rising levels of crimes in these categories. However, despite these amendments, although death sentences has been handed out since 1991, no executions have actually been carried out in PNG, also due to an absence of regulations surrounding the process.In fact, PNG has been given the status of “abolitionist de facto”, a definition adopted by the United Nations for countries that retain the death penalty but have not carried out executions during the past ten years. Nevertheless, the panellists noted that internationally PNG has consistently voted against or abstained from UN General Assembly resolutions calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, last time in 2018.
Ms. Thomson resented that currently there are 11 people on death row for more than 10 years in PNG, although international organisations are repeatedly urging the PNG Government to abolish the death penalty and to look for other measures to deter violent crimes. Legally it has been argued that the implementation of the death penalty contradicts section 36 of the PNG Constitution which states that, “No person shall be submitted to torture … or to treatment or punishment that is cruel or otherwise inhuman, or is inconsistent with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”. Furthermore, the death penalty is in violation of international treaties to which PNG is a signatory such as article 6 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is articulated in section 39 of the Constitution. In the same context, Ms. Thompson presented a recent survey indicating that 40% of PNG citizens are pro Death Penalty, 50% against while another 10% are undecided. Throughout the discussion, it was repeatedly stated that PNG is a Christian country, which appears to be the main reason for those who oppose the death penalty (20%), followed by the pain and suffering inflicted on the family of the executed person (7%). A surprising reason for opposing the Death Penalty appeared to be the cost for the taxpayer. For those 40% pro-Death Penalty the reasoning appears to be mainly emotional and cultural: the “Pay Back” tradition.
Cardinal John Ribot maintained throughout the seminar the position of the Catholic Church and all the Cristian confessions in general, that the Church firmly opposes the Death Penalty in all circumstances, due to the sacred right to life, the repercussion to families and the “revenge” factor, which is against Christian principles. He advocated for Life Sentence instead which provides a chance for remorse and societal recuperation. He also mentioned the position expressed by the PNG Council of Churches has also repeatedly stated that the death penalty is not a solution and other means must be considered by the government to deter crimes, having in mind that such laws are against biblical principles.
Typically for the PNG context, it has also been also argued that any execution would put the executioner(s) at a high risk of death themselves and could even lead to more violence as part of PNG’s “Pay back” system.
A Q&A session and debate followed, around a number of questions posed in advance online by the audience. A selection of the Q&A is presented below:
PNG has a death penalty legislation, why are we not executing it?
The reasons enumerated were the cultural context, lack of resources, the fear of reputation loss from the part of international community and the development partners.
If PNG starts executions, how will executioners be protected from payback by the families of those they execute?
This is a question typical for the PNG revenge and “pay back” culture inherited from the tribal tradition. The panellists opined that in general the executioners benefit of anonymity and identity protection
What is the Government's current position on capital punishment and are there any plans or initiatives aimed at further reducing or totally abolishing it?
Ms. Thomson mentioned that there is a national consultation process ongoing to provide input to the Parliament
What about the current execution methods?
Ms. Thomson provided a number of technical details such as the fact that hanging is currently the method of choice and a “fact finding” mission overseas (costing 600,000 USD) has been recently conducted by PNG officials to assess the possibility of implementing a number of other more “technically advanced” methods such as electrocution or lethal injection. These options are available now in theory but unlikely to be implemented due to the higher costs. In fact, one of the reasons for the long delay in carrying out the executions is also because the method had not been legally decided.
How about the Moral Costs?
Cardinal Ribat reiterated the main opposition of the Christian confessions based on religious, moral and social grounds.
Which courts are competent to impose the Death Penalty, what are the procedures followed?
The panellists highlighted that the right of appeal is enshrined into the international legislation and the PNG is following it, through the Department of Attorney General and the Pardon Committee, although the judicial system in PNG is suffering from a lack of financial and human resources, which makes the whole process slow and ineffective.
The panellists concluded that the discussion on the use of Death Penalty is likely to continue in PNG as the public debate, and especially the debate in the Parliament, may take years before a legal decision will be taken. A relevant push to the debate could be provided by nationwide consultation announced in February by the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission of the Parliament at the request of PNG Council of Churches. However, although the results on consultation should in principle be announced early next year, currently there is not any information about the current stage of the consultation or the methodology to conduct it. Thus, for the time being PNG is likely to maintain its current status quo: a de facto abolitionist country.