Why Pointing a Finger at Countries With the Death Penalty for Drugs Is Not Enough

24/05/2016 17:10 | Updated 24 May 2016

The death penalty for drug offences has received much attention recently. Mass executions last year in Indonesia, and the announcements of further killings, have garnered world headlines. Iran continues to execute drug offenders at an astonishing rate, earning condemnation from human rights groups. At last month's United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem (UNGASS), the death penalty prompted vocal debates between retentionist and abolitionist States, and more than sixty countries voiced their opposition to the practice.

When Harm Reduction International (HRI) launched our death penalty for drugs project in 2007, this issue was largely invisible in both the human rights and the drug policy discourse. It was certainly not an issue of debate during UN meetings on drug control at the time, which passed every year with no mention of capital punishment. Given that our research has found as many as 1,000 people are executed annually for drug offences, the increased attention over the last decade is welcome.

I am often asked what the international community can do to challenge the practice of death penalty States. There are options. One is for abolitionist governments and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to end financing of drug enforcement operations in death penalty States, which HRI and others have shown to directly contribute to death sentences and executions. Another is to fund human rights advocates working in death penalty countries to influence public opinion and government policy, and to defend death row prisoners.

After watching dozens of countries speak against capital punishment during the UNGASS, I think there is a third and perhaps even more important action that States can take if they are truly committed to ending the death penalty for drugs around the world.

The death penalty for drugs is the most extreme example of what I call 'punitive suppression'-- the logic that the harsher we punish people, the more effectively we will suppress drugs and drug markets. While this logic is commonly used by death penalty supporters to justify the practice, it also underpins the legal and policy frameworks of drug control in almost every country, regardless of whether they have capital punishment.

Punitive suppression is at the heart of the core UN treaties on drug control, particularly 1988 drug convention that established obligations to enact harsh penal provisions at domestic level. A 2001 UN report recorded a 50% increase in the number of countries prescribing the death penalty for drugs into domestic law between 1985 and 2000, the exact period during which the treaty was drafted, adopted and implemented at national level.

Punitive suppression takes different forms in different places. While capital and corporal punishment for drug crimes are obvious abuses that draw attention, other practices such as criminal penalties and incarceration for drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, felony disenfranchisement, stop and search, mandatory drug testing of people receiving benefits or prisoners and bans on accessing food assistance for drug offenders are equally driven by this same logic.

While abolitionist States argue (correctly) that the death penalty does nothing to deter drug crimes, this argument is undermined when punishment continues to be the premise of drug laws and policies in their own countries. This disconnect allows death penalty States and their defender to argue that capital punishment is rooted in national culture or tradition, and is simply their particular approach of pursuing drug suppression objectives shared by all countries. 

While capital punishment for drugs is only practiced by a small handful of governments, it has much wider significance in the drug reform debate. It is a window onto the failure - in both human rights and efficacy terms - of the global experiment in punitive drug suppression over the past half century. For this reason, the crucial work of abolishing the death penalty must go further than simply pointing our fingers at that tiny number of extremist fringe States that continue to execute people. We must acknowledge the flawed logic at the heart of the regime itself, and undo its corrosive effects on the drug laws and policies everywhere.

We are commonly told by political leaders that punitive drug laws are needed to 'send a message'. Perhaps, then, the most powerful way that non-death penalty States can truly challenge capital punishment for drugs is to reject the supremacy of punitive suppression within their own domestic drug laws, and 'send a message' of a different kind. Only then can we start to create a future in which the use of criminalisation, punishment and prisons as core tools of drug control is as much an extreme fringe position as is executing people for drug offences today, and draws the same kind of global condemnation.