WE CAN’T HAVE A REFERENDUM TO UNDERMINE A HUMAN RIGHT

Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser, 18 Jan 2019

The former Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Noor does not seem to appreciate the irony of his suggestion to hold a referendum on the abolition of the death penalty. For was it not he who “slapped, punched and karate-kicked the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, causing him to pass out on the floor” in 1998? Anwar’s lawyer, Karpal Singh commented: “This was an assault on a defenceless man who was blindfolded, handcuffed at the back and assaulted…”

We saw Anwar’s black eye days after the event. The point that must be made here is that he could have been killed like so many cases of deaths in police custody documented by SUARAM all these years. If that had happened, the former IGP would have found himself on death row. In that twilight of his impending execution, would he have called for a referendum on the death penalty? One can only wonder…

Democracy must not violate human rights

A referendum is an official opinion poll on what the public thinks on a single question. While this may look like supreme democracy, it must be reminded that making such an opinion poll a mandate for government policy, especially where that policy relates to human rights, is an abrogation of government responsibility.

First, it must be pointed out that in referenda, not all or even the majority of the people come out to cast their vote. Thus, we saw that in the recent Brexit referendum, only 37 per cent of the electorate voted to leave the EU. Could the referendum be said to represent the public will when 63 per cent did not vote to leave the EU?

Now ask this question: If we had a similar referendum on the death penalty in this country, could the death penalty be allowed on 37 per cent of the vote?

Apart from the issue of the death penalty, we cannot have referenda on other issues which concern human rights and constitutional rights. For example, can a populist government call for a referendum on whether minority groups should have equal rights in the country or whether they should have the right to their mother tongue education in the country? Who would be voting then? Can the decision of the majority decide government policy? Clearly not because these rights are entrenched in the Federal Constitution and international conventions such as ICERD. Thus, referenda cannot be an abrogation of government responsibility.

The death penalty is a denial of the most basic human right

The death penalty violates one of the most fundamental principles of human rights law—that states must recognize the right to life. Under Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right, life is a human right. The UN General Assembly, the representative body of recognized States, has called for an end to the death penalty. In addition to the right to life, other basic rights are often breached in its application. The death penalty has been found to breach the prohibition against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

In many parts of the world, the death penalty is now generally understood to be a human rights violation. Thus, we have seen progress in the abolition of the death penalty worldwide; today, at least 104 countries have put an end to capital punishment for all crimes. Moreover, of those that still have death penalty on their books, 35 of these countries have not executed anyone in at least 10 years. In 2010, only 23 countries were known to have carried out executions.

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