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Instead of quiet diplomacy, the government needs a principled, consistent, and more vocal opposition to the death penalty, whether or not the lives at stake are Australian.

As Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran face execution in Indonesia, there is much soul searching about what more Australia could do to save their lives. Last week, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and opposition foreign minister Tanya Plibersek made eloquent and impassioned speeches in Parliament, and, at a news conference in Bali, Sukumaran's mother movingly pleaded for her son's life.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Tony Abbott joined the condemnation: "We abhor the death penalty, we regard it as barbaric." 

Australia is in a position to be leading the charge in encouraging Asia-Pacific countries to abolish the death penalty, yet so far it hasn't done so. If Australia wants to stop executions of its nationals in the future, the government should rethink the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's traditionally low-key approach to capital punishment. Instead of quiet diplomacy, the government needs a principled, consistent, and more vocal opposition to the death penalty, whether or not the lives at stake are Australian.

There is little evidence that the softly softly approach has been effective. With five recent executions in Indonesia and more on the way, and a disturbing new interest in executions in Papua New Guinea, it seems the death penalty is making a resurgence in Australia's neighbourhood.

In PNG, after a moratorium of 60 years, the Attorney-General Dr Lawrence Kalinoe says the government will start implementing the death penalty this year. In recent years the PNG government has inched closer to executions by expanding the scope of crimes punishable by death, as well as the methods of execution. Fourteen people are currently on death row there. So far, neither Abbott nor Bishop have publicly registered concerns with the PNG government. Yet this is a country hugely dependent on Australian aid, where Canberra should be using its influence to press for the human rights of all Papuans.

Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, China and Vietnam also execute people. For Australia's voice to carry more weight against executions of people such as Chan and Sukumaran, it's important that Australia publicly registers its opposition to death sentences wherever and whenever possible.

In revising its policy on the death penalty abroad, the government should consider the British government's strategy, which entails a comprehensive public agenda for it to push for its abolition. The strategy paper includes clear benchmarks and goals to guide British embassies in advocating against the death penalty in countries in which executions continue. In addition to public and private pressure on individual cases, the strategy also includes support for civil society groups to raise awareness, and for lawyers to bring legal challenges. Britain credits successes in Barbados, Uganda and Kenya, which have each taken steps to reduce the use of executions, as examples of its impact. 

Australia too could earmark development assistance to aid local lawyers and civil society groups in their advocacy efforts towards the abolition of the death penalty.

Andrew Chan delivered a heartfelt message via Amnesty International to a vigil in Sydney: "Please don't let this just be about myself and Myu, but about others all over the world who need your help."  Let's not wait until more people are in their situation for Australia to lift its game.

Elaine Pearson is Australia director at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter @pearsonelaine 



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