More than a thousand people face execution for drug offenses each year around the globe, according to a report released this week by the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA). The report, The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses: Global Overview 2010 marks the first country-by-country overview of drug-related death penalty legislation and practice.
That figure is similar to the numbers compiled by the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain, which relies on press and other accounts to compile its data. According to Hands Off Cain board member and Italian Senator Marco Perduca, that group has compiled a list of hundreds of people executed for drug offenses last year, including 140 in Iran alone.
According to the report, the death penalty has been abolished in 139 countries, but 58 countries retain the death penalty and 32 of those retain the death penalty for drug offenses, mostly in Asia and the Middle East: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei-Darussalam, China, Cuba, Egypt, Gaza (Occupied Palestinian Territories), India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lao PDR, Libya, Malaysia, Myanmar, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Viet Nam and Yemen.
Of those 32 countries, at least 12 have carried out executions for drug offenses in the past three years and 13 retain mandatory death sentences for certain categories of drug offenses. Five of the 32, however, while retaining the death penalty for drug offenses, are abolitionist in practice.
The IHRA asked states that have death penalty statutes for drug offenses on the books, but that have an effective moratorium on use of the death penalty in place to go a step further and repeal those laws. "IHRA is calling on an immediate moratorium on all executions for drug offences, a commuting of all existing death sentences for drug offences and an amendment of legislation to remove the death penalty for all drug offenses," said Rick Lines, coauthor of the report. "Countries with the death penalty for drug offenses are not only violating human rights law, they are clinging to a criminal justice model that is ineffective and unnecessary."
The most execution-happy countries when it comes to drug offenders are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. According to the report, Iran executed at least 172 drug offenders last year and Malaysia executed 50. The report contains no firm figures from China, where the number of overall executions is believed to be in the thousands each year, but notes that "when China's notoriously harsh drug policies are considered along with the scale of its counternarcotics efforts, it is probable that drug crimes represent a sizable portion of those killed each year."
The report notes that many governments are loath to provide statistics on the number of people they execute for drug offenses, so the numbers could be higher. In four countries, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Sudan, there were no official data on drug-related death sentences, leaving the IHRA to rely on news reports and NGO sources for its data.
The movement to abolish the death penalty for drug offenses is advancing, albeit at a painfully slow pace, said report coauthor Patrick Gallahue. "There is progress among the states most committed to their capital drug laws but it has been slow, frustrating and often inadequate. Viet Nam, for instance, removed an offense related to 'organizing the illegal use of narcotics' from its death penalty offenses. The government did consider taking a number of other drug related offenses off its list of capital crimes but it never made it through the National Assembly. That's unfortunate but it shows that the government is giving thought to the area," he said.
"China also continually claims that it will reduce the application of the death penalty and various reports actually indicate such a reduction is underway. It's very hard to know if this is true given the secrecy that surrounds the death penalty but if we take the government at its word, then it represents modest progress," Gallahue continued.
"Similarly, the past five or six years has seen a real reduction in the use of capital punishment in Singapore. However, any gains made in this area were compromised by an extremely disturbing judicial decision in May that opted to retain the mandatory death penalty for drugs," Gallahue noted. "So even though Singapore may be moderating its use of the death penalty in practice, the decision by the Court Appeals leaves Singapore at an extreme fringe of drug policy."
The IHRA has been working to abolish the death penalty for drugs as part of its HR2 (Harm Reduction and Human Rights) campaign since late 2007, said Lines. "We have seen some significant developments since then," he told the Chronicle. "Certainly the issue is now one of prominence within the harm reduction and drug policy reform sectors, whereas before it had scant if any recognition within the sector. We have also seen major statements against the practice from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and others."
The release of the report this week has helped, he said. "It has been well received, including generating widespread media coverage. We believe we are making an important contribution to changing the thinking and discourse on the death penalty for drugs, the challenge now is to turn that into concrete policy changes. This new report marks the start of a new three year program of work on this issue at IHRA, so there will be much more to come as we advance our advocacy activities over that period."
The US made the list of states that include the death penalty for some drug offenses because of the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act, which includes a death penalty provision for murders committed in the furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise involving large quantities of drugs. Although no one has been executed or is currently on death row under that act, it needs to go, said Lines.
"The first thing the US should do generally is abolish the death penalty full stop," he said. "The US can also remove the death penalty for drugs from its federal legislation. It is not a law that has been used, thankfully, and seems only in place as some sort of symbolic statement in order to appear 'tough' on drugs. The US should also be reconsidering its drug enforcement aid to countries that enforce the death penalty for drugs, as increasing law enforcement's capacity to arrest and prosecute drug cases in those countries inevitably lead to more executions."
That's just for starters, Lines said. "In the wider scheme of things, there is obviously much the US can and should be doing to reduce or end some of the wider human rights abuses related to the war on drugs, both within the US itself and internationally. While the Obama administration has made some positive statements of late about refocusing US drug policy towards a more health-based approach rather than a law enforcement-based one, unless those words are backed up by concrete policy and budgetary changes they won't have any real meaning or impact."
For more on the campaign to abolish the death penalty for drug offenses, visit the HR2 web site linked above.