The following is the transcript of the Speech Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivered at a high-level event on the sidelines of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York.
I am afraid I have to give a contrary opinion. But I am encouraged by the intention of the Foreign Minister of Italy – to reach out to those who hold a different position and to promote a debate at all levels.* And I hope to contribute to that debate.
I think our starting shared position has to be that all human life is sacred. That is something which, whether you are abolitionist or retentionist, is a common position that we can all share and start with. Hence, our paramount objective must be to protect all human life, despite the fact that we live in a very imperfect world. As my colleague from Switzerland said, it is a complex world. The challenge is, how do we do this? How do we protect all human life despite the fact that we live in an imperfect and complex world? That is the challenge, but the immediate question that confronts all of us, both within and without this room, is whether the death penalty, in the proper context and in strictly limited circumstances, plays any role in protecting the sanctity of life. So I want to focus on this question. Whether the death penalty, in the proper context and in strictly limited circumstances, plays any role in protecting the sanctity of lives in our society.
This is the United Nations, which by definition recognises diversity and recognises the sovereign rights of states to exercise their sovereignty in pursuit of their people’s welfare; I think this debate – as a side event of the United Nations – is very appropriate. I have therefore listened to the views that have been shared so far, very carefully, and with deep respect. Because all of you have walked this very painful journey.**
But I want to quote from my predecessor, Minister Shanmugam, who in a similar event two years ago said, “to portray the debate as simply one of taking lives versus not taking lives is a straw man argument. No civilised society can glorify in the taking of life. The question is whether, in very limited circumstances, it is legitimate to have the death penalty so that the larger interest of society is served.” Added to this is the fact that the rights of the offenders must always be weighed against the rights of their victims and their families, and the broader rights of the community and society to live in peace and security. So therefore, we need a more balanced, a broader assessment of the issue at hand, and we have to take into account the different perspectives and the facts on the ground.
In Singapore where I come from, the death penalty remains on our statutes. But it is applied only and strictly in the context of an unwavering commitment to the rule of law. In fact, you could argue that a prerequisite is an unwavering commitment to the rule of law, resting on a strong and independent judiciary. There must be fair and transparent laws and due process. Because otherwise you will end up with situations like what Mr Edward Mpagi has gone through. But the way we have implemented our judicial system in Singapore has been pivotal in our efforts to foster a peaceful, safe, harmonious and inclusive society. Murder and drug trafficking cause enormous harm to society. Capital punishment is carried out only after due judicial process and in accordance with the law. As a result, for what it is worth, I can stand here and tell you that Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world. Our residents, including women and children, can go anywhere they please, freely and without fear, at any time of the day or night.
The Singapore government therefore takes our responsibilities for the safety and security of our citizens very, very seriously. The types of crime for which the death penalty is applied is a matter for individual states to decide based on your own national circumstances. I am not here to preach or to prescribe. Other states will have your own circumstances. What constitutes a most serious crime must be examined contextually in terms of its impact on the immediate and third party victims, as well as on society at large. For example, Singapore regards drug trafficking as a most serious crime. Singapore is a densely-populated city state with large numbers of people moving across our borders every single day. We are situated in a region with major drug production and trafficking centres, putting us at the forefront of the struggle against drugs. Drugs, and I can speak here as a physician, drugs have a devastating impact on the individuals, on the families and on societies. Globally, there were over 207,000 drug-related deaths in 2014. These are just deaths. The number of people who have suffered, injured, families that have suffered grave misfortune – young adults who have been deprived of the opportunity to fulfil their potential – it is several orders of magnitude larger than 207,000 per year. According to the UNODC, the average homicide rate in 2013 was 6.2 per 100,000 population. That same year, the homicide rate in Singapore was 0.21 per 100,000. In our view, capital punishment for drug-related offences and for murder has been a key element in keeping Singapore drug free and keeping Singapore safe. Singapore is probably one of the few countries in the world which has successfully fought this drug problem. And we do not have slums, we do not have ghettos, we do not have no-go zones for the police. The death penalty has deterred major drug syndicates from establishing themselves in Singapore, and we have successfully kept the drug situation under control.
I must also add that whilst there may be many countries in favour of abolition, we do not as of now have international consensus for or against the death penalty when it is imposed according to the due process of law. There are no major international treaties that proscribe the imposition of the death penalty. Every State has the sovereign right, indeed a sovereign duty, to decide for itself what works, and to take into account its own circumstances. In Singapore, there are very high levels of support on the part of our people for the death penalty to remain on our books. But we do not take this support for granted and from time to time, we will continue to review our legislation and make changes according to our circumstances.
This debate is a heated, painful and emotional one. But I ask members or representatives from the floor today to respectfully reflect on the views expressed, the diversity of the circumstances, and the impact on the ground. And to give to each state its sovereign right to choose the most appropriate judicial approach, so that we can adopt a more balanced perspective on this complex issue. I thank you for allowing me to share my contrarian views. Thank you.
* Minister delivered his remarks after the opening remarks of the UNSG, keynote remarks from the Foreign Ministers of Argentina and Italy, remarks from the panelists, and remarks from the Swiss Foreign Minister. Italy noted that while there was a “clear international trend in favour of the moratorium”, there must be a “constant effort to listen to those who hold a different position and to engage with them in order to win hearts and minds”.
** Minister was referring to the three panelists who shared their experiences: (i) Edward Mpagi, an Ugandan who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row; (ii) Susannah Sheffer, author of several books on the death penalty, and; (iii) Ron McAndrew, a former prison warden in Florida.