Take more balanced view on death penalty, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan urges world leaders

File photograph of Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has called on world leaders to take a more balanced assessment of the death penalty, as he explained Singapore's approach to capital punishment.

Speaking at a meeting taking place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on Wednesday (Sept 21), he pushed back against calls for all countries to abolish the death penalty.

"This debate is a heated, painful and emotional one but I just ask members... 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," he said.

At the opening of the meeting, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon had urged all countries to cease capital punishment. "The world reached a major turning point in 2007 when the general assembly called for a worldwide moratorium,'' he said.

"Since then the movement against capital punishment has been growing... I am gravely concerned that some countries are suddenly resuming executions. Others are considering reintroducing the death penalty. We have to keep up the fight for the right to life," he added.

Singapore has often been among the minority of dissenting voices on the issue of the death penalty at the UN. Wednesday's event was billed as a forum to focus on the impact of the death penalty on the families of murder victims, children of the condemned, prison personnel who oversee executions and others. Speakers on the panel had placards on the table saying #EndExecutions.

At a similar event in 2014, then Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam had dismissed the portrayal of the issue as one of "taking lives versus not taking lives".

Dr Balakrishnan reiterated that point in his speech: "I think our starting shared position has to be that all human life is sacred... The immediate question that confronts all of us, whether within or without this room is whether the death penalty, within the proper context, and in strictly limited circumstances plays any role in protecting the sanctity of life."

He also outlined Singapore's approach to the use of the death penalty and why it continues to apply to drug crimes.

"In Singapore, the death penalty remains on our statute books but it is applied and strictly in the context of an unwavering commitment to the rule of law... resting on a strong and independent judiciary, there must be fair, transparent laws and due process. 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," he said.

"In our view, and we humbly submit it for your consideration, capital punishment for drugs-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. We do not have slums, we do not have ghettoes, we do not have no-go zones for the police.The death penalty has deterred major drug syndicates from establishing themselves in Singapore, and successfully kept the drug situation under control."

Dr Balakrishnan also said that there was strong support from Singaporeans for capital punishment to remain on the books, but he added that the government did not take this support for granted.

"From time to time we will continually to review our legislation and make changes according to our circumstances," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2016, with the headline Take more balanced view on death penalty, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan urges world leaders. Subscribe