In Vietnam, death penalty cannot be a remedy for corruption

By An Dien, Thanh Nien News

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A general view of the Vietnam National Assembly (Parliament) is seen during the opening ceremony of its 2015 spring session in Hanoi May 20, 2015. Photo: Reuters
 As legislators in Hanoi weigh removing “war crimes” and “surrendering to the enemy” from Vietnam’s list of capital offenses, ongoing debates at the National Assembly suggest that “corruption” is not among the crimes being considered.
Vietnam enacted its first Penal Code in 1985, and did not remove “fraud” from its list of crimes punishable by death until 2009, when the National Assembly – the national legislature -- reduced the number of capital crimes from 29 to 22.
More recently, the Ministry of Justice submitted a bill to the house that could cut seven more crimes from that list -- namely robbery, vandalizing equipment and works significant to national security, gross disturbances of public order, surrendering to enemy forces, acts of sabotage, waging invasive wars, and crimes against humanity.
The ministry has been soliciting public opinions so that the parliament could vote on it later this year.
Proponents of the death penalty say it needs to remain in place to fight rampant graft and overhaul the business climate. But with corruption remaining massive and the death penalty clearly being no deterrent, holding on to it as a panacea seems naïve.
The 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) ranked Vietnam 119 out of 175 countries and territories with a score of 31/100 -- a ranking the country has retained since 2012. Study after study has proved that the practice of giving and taking bribes is so common that it is understood to be a routine and infamous part of doing business here in Vietnam.
Vietnam's business climate and rule of law have remained a bureaucratic labyrinth, fueling a bribe-for-approval system that has permeated every level.
Repeated rhetoric from the top leadership notwithstanding, the commitment to address corruption has apparently failed to trickle down the system. Meanwhile, the cosseted state sector, notorious for its less-than-efficient performance, has done nothing to assuage the fears that it is the bane of the economy and a major source of corruption.
It is in this context that the idea of simply killing a person while leaving a broken system untouched does not wash.
A number of lawmakers have also objected to scrapping the death penalty for corruption on the grounds that doing so would go against the will of the people.
But this misses the larger point. The bottom line is people are sick of greasing official palms to get through their lives.
Businessmen cannot countenance paying “informal charges” to complete mundane licensing and tax procedures; ordinary people are sick of paying “informal charges” to see a doctor or get their child into kindergarten.
Lawmakers cannot pretend they are addressing these issues by killing those who lack political connections or financial resources to weasel their way out of capital punishment.
It may be true that people, frustrated by such entrenched practices and fed up with stubborn corruption, demand immediate tough action against white-collar criminals who steal public money.
But lawmakers just cannot ride this backlash to insist that the death penalty should remain in place, claiming they are merely speaking for their constituents.
What the public longs to see is a no-holds-barred crackdown on corruption and real political will to tackle the root causes. There is no point in carrying out a few high-profile executions and then continuing with business as usual.
Proponents of the death penalty are also convinced that it would play a crucial role in repairing the shattered trust of foreign investors as the country is in the middle of implementing major financial reforms. Again, it is unlikely that many would buy into this. Foreign investors and members of the public want to see a crackdown on corruption -- one that brings economic reforms and respect for the rule of law.
The death penalty may help to placate concerned citizens in the short run. But it cannot be used as a sales pitch in place of larger, more comprehensive long-term moves to weed out corruption.
So if Vietnamese lawmakers want to show their constituents that they are not lame-duck representatives, it is time they directed their efforts and endeavors toward amending laws and rectifying deep-seated ills that allow widespread corruption instead of noisily advocating the death penalty as a remedy.
The public is discerning.
* Editor's note: The view is personal and does not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Thanh Nien News.

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