Punch Q & A: Just what is justice?
When announcing Osama bin Laden’s death, US President Barack Obama declared it was about “liberty and justice for all”. The Punch asked RMIT’s Adjunct Professor Peter Norden, a law, crime and justice expert, what that means.
What was your immediate response to the announcement of bin Laden’s death?
Certainly a sense of surprise that it happened without warning. But then I reacted to the words used by the US President and Australian Prime Minister that “justice had been done”. My understanding of justice being done is when an accused person is taken into custody, tried and receives the verdict of the court.
In the case of bin Laden, who was targeted and ultimately killed by US forces, would you consider this an ‘execution’?
Without further information it is hard to make such a judgement. Were those defending him already killed? At first the media reports suggested he resisted, then they had to admit that he was not armed. It would appear that execution is an appropriate word to apply to the situation, from the evidence to date at present.
Are there cases where the execution of a criminal is justified?
I believe that it would be ethical to take the life of an accused if there was a danger or serious risk to life involved. In the west we criticise China and Iran for executions without trial and with a transparent process. We lessen the credibility of our own democratic society when we are seen to inflict vengeance, rather than follow the rule of law.
What are the main objections to the death penalty?
The death penalty attempts to uphold the value of human life by taking the life of another. In doing so, we belittle the value of human life. Some Christians even try to suggest that their value commitment is to the protection of “innocent human life” and does not extend to those convicted of criminal offences. This is clearly a manipulation of Christian values to suit their own false opinions.
Is it just, do you think, that bin Laden did not go through the justice process?
Despite the fact that his arrest would have caused enormous complexities, in terms of management and security, the US authorities would have been seen to have more credibility that their actions in this case. Their justiifcation that he was buried at sea in keeping with Muslim practice is abhorrent. This was not the purpose of his being buried at sea and anyone with any intelligence or objective assessment of the situation could recognise this.
Is there any inconsistency between Australian leaders’ objections to the death penalty and their welcoming of bin Laden’s death?
Recent Australian political leaders, including John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julie Gillard have been seen to be inconsistent with regard to the death penalty. As I attended the international meeting of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty in Geneva last year, as a member of the World Coalition Australia was publicly criticised for seeking to protect the lives of those on death row in Indonesia, while welcoming the execution of the Bali bombers. We are seen to have a double standard in this regard.
The vast majority of people see no issue with bin Laden being killed - are there many other instances where this would be the case, do you think?
If you oppose capital punishment in principle, then you cannot support its use in any situation, even in the case of Saddam Hussein and bin Laden. It is such difficult and extreme cases that the credibility of those who oppose capital punishment is tested.
A similar situation arises with regard to the “Right to Life” movement in Australia, which opposes abortion yet does not take a public stand on capital punishment. Their position is weakened as a result.
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