With the United Nations' International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking set for tomorrow, the timing couldn't be better for a new report from the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA) decrying the complicity of Western governments and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in international drug control efforts that result in the execution of drug offenders.
Although the European Commission and nearly all of the donor nations reject the death penalty, the funding of programs like the East Asian Border Liaison Office means that those governments and organizations are complicit, if inadvertently, in the application of the death penalty to drug offenders, the IHRA found in a report issued this week, Complicity or Abolition? The Death Penalty and International Support for Drug Enforcement.
The report's findings are worth repeating:
- The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the European Commission and individual European governments are all actively involved in funding and/or delivering technical assistance, legislative support and financial aid intended to strengthen domestic drug enforcement activities in states that retain the death penalty for drug offences.
- Such funding, training and capacity-building activities -- if successful -- result in increased convictions of persons on drug charges and the potential for increased death sentences and executions.
- Specific executions and death sentences can be linked to drug enforcement activities funded by European governments and/or the European Commission and implemented through UNODC.
- Donor states, the European Commission and UNODC may therefore be complicit in executions for drug offenses in violation of international human rights law and contrary to their own abolitionist policies and UN General Assembly resolutions calling for a moratorium on the death penalty for all offenses.
- The risk of further human rights abuses connected to drug enforcement projects, and the complicity of donors and implementing agencies in such abuses, is clear and must be addressed.
In a report issued last month, the IHRA found that 58 countries still adhere to the death penalty and 32 of them have on the books the death penalty for drug offenses. But those countries don't all apply the death penalty with the same enthusiasm. IHRA identified six "retentionist" countries that have especially egregious records when it come to the death penalty for drug offenses: China (thousands of cases a year), Iran (10,000 drug traffickers executed since 1979), Malaysia (70 drug death sentences in the last two years), Saudi Arabia (at least 62 drug offenders executed in 2007 and 2008), Vietnam (at least 109 people sentenced to death for drug offenses between 2007 and 2009), and Singapore (more than 400 people executed, most for drug offenses since 1991).
All of them are the recipients or beneficiaries of anti-drug spending by the UNODC, the European Community and individual member countries, Japan, and the United States. That means donor organizations and countries are flouting UN human rights law, which states that the death penalty should be applied only for the "most serious offenses." Neither the UNODC nor the UN rapporteur on executions and the death penalty considers drug offenses to be among the "most serious offenses."
If developed countries are to continue funding anti-drug law enforcement efforts in countries that apply the death penalty to drug offenses, IHRA recommended:
- In keeping with Resolution 2007/2274(INI) of the European Parliament, the European Commission should develop guidelines governing international funding for country level and regional drug enforcement activities to ensure such programs do not result in human rights violations, including the application of the death penalty.
- The abolition of the death penalty for drug-related offenses, or at the very least evidence of an ongoing and committed moratorium on executions, should be made a pre-condition of financial assistance, technical assistance and capacity-building and other support for drug enforcement.
- A formal and transparent process for conducting human rights impact assessments as an element of project design, implementation and evaluation should be developed and included as part of all drug enforcement activities.
- International guidelines on human rights and drug control should be developed to guide national responses and the design and implementation of drug enforcement projects.
"Many people around the world would be shocked to know that their governments are funding programs that are leading people indirectly to death by hanging and firing squads," said Rick Lines, deputy director of IHRA and coauthor of the report. While agencies and countries were not intentionally funding programs that led to people facing the death penalty, it is "a fact" that such executions are happening, he said.
Rebecca Schleifer, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian newspaper that while the UNODC has "taken steps in the right direction" by acknowledging the human rights implications of its programs, its drug enforcement activities, as well as those of other countries and organizations, "put them at risk of supporting increased death sentences and executions in some countries."
There was an urgent need for political leaders in the US and Britain to rethink their "disastrous' war on drugs' policy and tacit support for regimes that continue executing people for relatively minor offenses," said Sebatian Saville, director of the British drug policy and human rights group Release.
Even the UNODC welcomed the report. A spokesman told the Guardian it raised "legitimate concerns" about how global drug prohibition enforcement "may indirectly result in increased convictions and the possible application of the death penalty." The spokesman added that UNODC had taken "concrete steps" to include human rights assessments as part of "all drug enforcement activities."