Sunday, January 10, 2010

Papua New Guinea does not need the death penalty


The media recently raised the question of whether Papua New Guinea should implement the death penalty as capital punishment to deter serious crime. This follows a public outcry after a Highlands mother allegedly killed her children whilst in a depressed state of mind. Similar emotional reactions have previously been expressed by citizens whenever instances of brutal murder are committed.

For years, the government having already passed the law on imposing the death penalty on certain serious crimes has yet to execute a convicted criminal. The technical snag as it seems is it has not decided yet what the approved method of execution will be for the criminal.

Why the death penalty?

This writer opposes capital punishment in its different forms but let’s see why society should put our worst criminals to death by execution (capital punishment). Capital punishment is lawfully carrying out the death penalty as a punishment. Capital punishment by execution has been used in societies throughout history as a way to punish crime, and or suppress political dissent.

Execution effectively stops a killer from murdering again. There are many cases in which released, paroled, or escaped murderers have gone on to kill again, so by executing them; society ensures murderers do not kill again.

In most countries that practice capital punishment today, the death penalty is reserved as punishment for premeditated murder, espionage, treason, or as part of military justice. Whilst other places carry the death penalty for sexual crimes, such as rape, adultery, incest and sodomy; including drug and human trafficking and serious cases of corruption, which carry the death penalty by execution (e.g. China).

Capital punishment may make us feel that dead criminals are no longer a threat to society, as they cannot commit any further crimes, either within prison or after escaping; or upon being released. Some people often defend capital punishment saying that society has a moral obligation to protect the safety of its citizens.

Moreover, capital punishment will bring about the greatest balance of good over evil. Thus, killing our worst criminals will benefit society because it may deter violent crime, although it is difficult to produce direct evidence to support this claim. Society may further assume that those who are deterred by the death penalty do not commit murders.

Capital punishment is also a form of “retribution”. Execution is an ultimate form of punishment than rehabilitative treatment, and is less costly. The criminal is made to suffer in proportion to the offence (or so we think). This writer disagrees with any form of retribution, but many people will still see it as an acceptable reason for the death penalty according to certain studies in more recent times.

Another strong argument used in favour of capital punishment is ‘deterrence’. The question whether the death penalty deters is hard to prove one way or the other. This is because the number of people actually executed each year (as compared to those sentenced to death) is usually a very small proportion in certain countries that carries out death penalties. To further qualify this, if one studies those countries which almost always carry out death sentences, there is far less serious crime (eg Singapore). This tends to indicate that the death penalty is a deterrent, but only where execution is a virtual certainty. This does convince me that the death penalty is much more likely to be a deterrent where the crime requires planning, and the potential criminal has time to think about the possible consequences. Where the crime is committed in the heat of the moment there is no likelihood that any punishment will act as a deterrent.

Death penalty is not a deterrent

The death penalty is not a deterrent as proven by studies based upon certain US states prove. In some countries, innocent people have been executed and there is no possible way to compensate them for any miscarriage of justice. Another significant but much less-realised danger here is the person convicted of the murder may have actually killed the victim and may even admit having done so, but does not agree that the killing was murder.

Another reason often overlooked is the pain, the innocent family and friends of criminals must go through in the time leading up to and during the execution. Waiting on death row will often cause them serious trauma for years afterwards.

However strongly one may support capital punishment, two wrongs do not make one right. One cannot and should not deny the suffering of the victim's family in a murder case but the suffering of the murderer's family is surely valid too. There must always be the concern that the state can administer the death penalty justly. Most countries have a very poor record on this.

Like ordinary people, even criminals are real people too who have the capacity to feel pain, fear and the loss of their loved ones, and all the other emotions that the rest of us are capable of feeling. It is easier to put this thought on one side when discussing the most awful multiple murderers but less so when discussing, say, an 18 year old girl convicted of drug trafficking. So if PNG MPs are still undecided all these years, then they should consider this: fourteen years ago, Singapore hanged two girls for this crime who were both only 18 at the time of their offences, and China shot an 18 year old girl for the same offence in 1998.

There is no such thing as a humane method of putting a person to death irrespective of what the state may claim. Every form of execution causes the prisoner suffering; some methods perhaps cause less than others. There may be a brutalising effect upon society by carrying out executions.

I believe it is wrong for the government to kill in order to teach people not to kill. In fact it probably promotes more murder than prevents, because it is telling society that it is alright. It is proven failure elsewhere because we have more murders and violence today than before the death penalty was reinstated back in some countries.

We also have more murders and violence in countries without capital punishment. Far from deterring murder, the continued existence of the death penalty makes people also believe the government is not doing anything at all about crime in general. Countries have been killing murderers for years and years but the murders still continue. This only proves that we cannot stop killing with more killing.


If the general conclusion is that capital punishment is desirable, then the first step toward restoration is for our government to present a fully thought out set of proposals that can be put to the people in a referendum. Here it must state precisely what offences should carry the death penalty, how it should be carried out, who will carry it out and what effect on crime is expected to follow from its introduction.

If such a referendum produced a clear yes vote, the government would have a genuine mandate to proceed upon and could claim the support of our people. After this, we should have another referendum 5 years later so that the effects of capital punishments in PNG can be reviewed and voted on again. A national referendum has the advantage of involving the public in the decision making process and raising awareness through the media all issues involved, and the arguments for and against any proposed changes.

Finally, I am also of the view that public opinion should not determine justice. Justice is not supposed to be up to public opinion. On a matter that is so centrally about justice, public opinion should play a minimal role. National hysteria can lead to unjust convictions and execution. In the US, the famous case of the Rosenburgs should remind us all that capital punishment must never be carried out in response to national hysteria.

PNG must not ever allow public opinion as it is a dangerous approach to capital punishment. A corrupt unpopular government trying to get public support could easily succumb to undue pressure and may execute an innocent person as has happened in some countries. In the final analysis, we have just three clear choices:

  • Not to have the death penalty and continue to accept other serious crimes;
  • Carry out punishment only for just the worst criminals as retribution to punish criminals for their terrible crimes; and
  • The death penalty may be a deterrence to see a corresponding drop in serious crimes.

The government must study the results of a national referendum and ensure PNG has a just legal system to deter and reduce future levels of crime, whilst at the same time protect its citizens, society and state from dangerous criminals.

Reginald Renagi is a freelance writer


  1. C'mon Malum, C'mon Reg, the Death Penalty is already in place in PNG, how many people have been butchered or chopped into little pieces after Kangaroo local Courts have tried someone on the charges of Sorcery?

    Isn't the death penalty just yet another step in the whole "payback" system?

  2. These are Reg's own views Steve. I personally am for the death penalty, given the atrocious killings all over the country, especially those "witch hunting" ones where so-called "sorcerers" are killed in the most-unimaginable ways.

  3. Reginald Renagi11:14 AM


    I am fully aware that the death penalty is already in PNG but the government can not make up its mind whether to kill the criminal or not as it is still studying the best way to put those on death row now. There is no humane way to put criminals to death by the state.

    The death penalty does not deter criminals killing as studies have shown. Yes Steve, the death penalty is the state's way of 'payback' system that our people understand. It is wrong for the government to kill in order to teah people not to kill.

    The government does not have the political will to enforce the death penanlty otherwise we would have done it years ago. What are we waiting for. Once the decision is made it will be very diffecult to reverse it.

    Any planned public execution event will always be disrupted by the people as our people will have some problems in accepting this decision.