Drug War Chronicle, 11 Jan 2008

The notices generally appear as brief blips on the news wires, or perhaps as one-paragraph summaries in the international sections of newspapers: “Iran Hangs Three for Heroin Smuggling,” “Vietnam Sentences 12 to Death for Drugs,” “Malaysia to Execute Man For Five Pounds of Cannabis.” The notices may be brief, but there is a steady drumbeat of them. In just the past week came news that Iran had handed over the body of a Pakistani man executed for drug trafficking and that Malaysia had sentenced a bill collector to death for drug trafficking.

Despite the steadily rising toll, the use of the death penalty as a tool in the war on drugs rarely receives much attention, let alone sustained analysis. But that could be beginning to change as harm reduction and human rights organizations gear up to put the state-sanctioned killing of drug offenders in the international spotlight. The opening volley in that effort took place last month, when the International Harm Reduction Association released a report on the use of the death penalty for drug offenses that both details the extent of the problem and qualifies it as a violation of international human rights law.

The report, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: A Violation of International Human Rights Law, authored by IHRA analyst Rick Lines, finds that some 32 countries have drug offense death penalty provisions on their books, mostly in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. While the death penalty is typically reserved for drug sales, trafficking, or manufacture, that is not always the case, and in some countries, mere possession can warrant a death sentence.

The number of people executed for drug offenses easily runs into the hundreds, perhaps even more, each year. In the last month, Vietnam alone has sentenced more than 40 people to death for drug offenses, while from Iran comes a steady drumbeat of notices from the state news agency that another trafficker or two or three has been hanged. China has been known to hold mass public executions of drug offenders, while in Singapore, dozens of drug offenders face the executioner each year.

Still, the exact number of executions is unknowable. That’s because countries either do not provide details on the number of executions or do not provide breakdowns of why people were executed.

“Because some countries — China, for instance — do not release details of the number of executions they carry out each year, it is impossible to arrive at an accurate yearly total of drug war executions,” said Lines. “While we can’t arrive at an accurate number, suffice it to say that in some countries, as detailed in the report, drug offenders constitute a significant percentage of all executions each year, so this is a major issue in some countries.”

Those killings violate international human rights law, the report argues. While international law does not ban capital punishment, it does limit it in significant ways. The report notes that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says the death penalty may be applied only for the “most serious crimes.” Both the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions have found that drug offenses do not constitute “most serious crimes,” which makes executing drug offenders a violation of international law.

“Capital punishment for drug offences is but one illustration of how human rights have been sacrificed in the name of the ‘war on drugs,'” said Professor Gerry Stimson, the IHRA’s executive director. “Unfortunately, the death penalty is not the only example of such abuses worldwide. Repressive law enforcement practices, the denial of health services to drug users and the spread of HIV infection among people who inject drugs, due to lack of access to harm reduction programs, are far too common in many countries across the globe.”

While the IHRA is working all these issues, it is now preparing to bring the death penalty issue to the forefront as part of a broader campaign to tie harm reduction and human rights together. “This report is the first research report from our new HR2 — harm reduction and human rights — program, and one of our main emphases in this new program is research and advocacy on human rights issues related to drug policy and human rights abuses against people who use drugs,” said Lines. “The death penalty is an obvious issue in that regard, and an important one to highlight with our first publication. This is part of a broader campaign, and we will be using the research in various ways to highlight the issue at the international level in 2008.”

The emerging campaign against the death penalty for drug offenders is part of a broader effort to bring more attention to human rights abuses against people involved with drugs, said Lines. “Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been very supportive of our work on this issue and have provided important advice and information along the way,” he said. “This is an important link for us. We hope the issue of the death penalty for drugs is one that might be used to raise the issue of human rights abuses and drug policy more generally within the mainstream human rights movement.”

IHRA will be working with human rights groups as well as its international network of regional harm reduction groups to put the issue in the spotlight this year. In the US, that means groups like the Harm Reduction Coalition will be joining the fight.

“Our general feeling is that the more repressive the legal environment, the less room for implementing harm reduction measures around HIV prevention, overdose prevention, and related issues,” said Daniel Raymond, the coalition’s policy director, “We see a direct correlation in places like Thailand,” he said.

The Harm Reduction Coalition has already been working the issue to a limited degree and plans to do more, Raymond said. “We’ve done a little work around China and its tendency to celebrate the international day against drugs by executing people, and we’ve been involved in the discussions between the IHRA and the regional harm reduction networks on this,” he said. “We will be involved again as this campaign begins to gear up. We’re very interested in pressure to bear and in bringing the harm reduction community in the US into this issue.”

Lines said it is time to act. “As I did the research for this report, I was surprised how little attention this issue has received, despite the fact that executions for drug offenses clearly violate international law. There was much less literature on the topic than I assumed there would be when I started,” he noted. “I was also surprised to see that while the worldwide trend is clearly toward the abolition of the capital punishment — the number of countries with the death penalty has steadily decreased over the past 20 years — at the same time, the number of countries with laws allowing the death penalty for drugs has increased,” Lines continued. “That’s completely opposite to the general trend away from capital punishment. I think this is an issue where we can almost empirically measure the negative effects of the war on drugs on human rights.”

The campaign against the death penalty for drug offenses got a boost last month when the UN General Assembly called for a moratorium on the death penalty for all offenses. Now, the IHRA, its regional network, and mainstream human rights organizations are ready to bring on the pressure.

“We will begin to initiate more direct lobbying and campaigning this year,” Lines promised. “I can’t go into any more detail at the moment, but you have not heard the last from us on this issue.”