On November 17, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of capital punishment. It passed convincingly: a total of 120 nations voted for the resolution, which called for nations to restrict the use of the death penalty, with the aim of eventually eliminating it altogether.
One curious fact was that of the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, only three – Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines – voted to support the resolution. Singapore and Brunei voted against it, while the remaining five nations – among them some of the region’s most eager users of the death penalty – abstained.
The U.N. vote indicates an increasingly widespread international consensus against the use of the death penalty. As the General Assembly stated in a December 2007 resolution, “there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value and that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable.”
But the vote also highlighted Southeast Asia’s continuing use of – and defense of – capital punishment, despite the tireless efforts of the region’s death penalty abolitionists. To start with, it is no surprise to see Singapore sitting squarely in the “NO” column. Anyone who has descended into Singapore’s Changi Airport will be familiar with airlines’ chirpy reminder that Singapore imposes the death penalty for drug trafficking offenses. According to Amnesty International, Singapore is one of four countries known to have carried out executions for drug-related violations in recent years. The country reportedly has 50 people on death row who have exhausted all appeals.
Moreover, the city-state has been among the most forthright and confident defenders of the death penalty as a punishment for serious crimes. This was reflected in Singapore’s introduction of an amendment to the U.N. resolution that asserts the “sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal systems, including determining appropriate legal penalties.” The amendment was adopted with the support of 96 member states.
Some of those nations that abstained from the vote also continue to hand down death sentences. Take Indonesia. While the country has not executed anyone since 2016, the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) points out that it has approximately 274 people on death row, including 60 people who have been there for more than 10 years. In 2019, Indonesian courts handed down at least 80 death sentences in 2019, up from 48 in 2018.
Vietnam and Laos, two other nations that abstained on the U.N. vote, do not publicize statistics on the use of the death penalty. But according to HRW, Vietnam may have executed as many as 429 people between 2013 and 2016.
Even those Southeast Asian nations that supported the U.N. resolution are uncertain allies of abolition. One of them, Malaysia, holds approximately 1,324 people on death row. While the reformist government that was elected in 2018 pledged to ban capital punishment, this has since been watered down into a pledge that it will merely abolish the mandatory use of the death penalty – a step in the right direction, but a small one.
The Philippines banned the death penalty in 2006, but since taking office in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has on various occasions threatened to reintroduce it, particularly for drug-related crimes. Indeed, one could mount a case that Duterte has introduced a de facto form of capital punishment in his violent “war on drugs,” which by one estimate has killed more than 12,000 people – many innocent, all without trial – since 2016.
Curiously, the nation with possibly the best record on capital punishment is Cambodia, a country whose government is not otherwise known as a staunch defender of human rights. The country banned the death penalty prior to the arrival of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in 1992-93. Indeed, with Prime Minister Hun Sen having mostly subverted the democratic institutions introduced by the U.N. mission, the ban on the death penalty may well turn out to be its most lasting legacy.
What explains Southeast Asia’s addiction to the death penalty? On one level, the region’s governments continue to cling to an outmoded zero-tolerance mentality toward crime, despite the scant evidence that capital punishment is an effective deterrent to crime. As evidenced by the language of Singapore’s proposed amendment to the U.N. resolution, the issue has also teased out an anti-colonial reflex on the part of some Southeast Asian nations, for whom foreign criticism has caused them to dig in their heels.
Whatever the causes, the result of the latest U.N. vote suggests that it will be some time before Southeast Asian nations move toward full abolition of capital punishment.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the amendment to the U.N. resolution sponsored by Singapore failed to pass. In fact, the amendment was adopted with the support of 95 member states. The article has been updated to correct the error.