Millions of dollars in international aid for drug enforcement is spent in countries with extremely poor human rights records and with little or no accountability for the resulting abuses, according to a new investigative report carried out by the UK-based drugs and human rights organisation, Harm Reduction International.

Launched in advance of the UN International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, on June 26, the report Partners in Crime: International Funding for Drug Control and Gross Violations of Human Rights (1) tracks drug enforcement funding from donor states, often via the United Nations, to countries where executions, arbitrary detention, physical abuse and slave labour are weapons in the war on drugs.

“In some cases donor states have effectively paid for the capture of their own citizens only for them to be later sentenced to death,” said Damon Barrett, Deputy Director of Harm Reduction International and co-author of the report. “There are no safeguards – when the UN acts as a conduit for these funds, a further layer of bureaucracy separates the money from the abuses. Instead of the UN being a guardian of human rights it becomes more like a laundry mechanism, washing the funds of any form of accountability.”

Information for the report was compiled using official government information, correspondence with governments, UN project documents, human rights country reports, NGO publications, information from incountry partners and news reports.

The report’s findings include: 

  • Belgium, France, Ireland, Japan, UK contributed USD $3.4 million for an UNODC border control project in Iran that has led to a twelve-fold increase in arrests at key transit points. More than 1,000 people were executed for drug offences from 2010 through 2011, more than three times the previous two-year period (2)
  • France and the UK contributed USD $720,000 to a UNODC Project promoting and strengthening intelligence-led investigations capacities in Iran.
  • Australia, Luxembourg, Sweden contributed USD $1,649,800 for a UNODC project on capacity building for drug detention centre staff in Viet Nam. Drug detention centres in the country are essentially forced labour camps, where detainees are confined for years and compelled to work for private companies that contract with the centres (3)
  • US government contributed USD $736,800 to a UNODC Interdiction and seizure capacity project in Viet Nam. Key indicators adopted to measure the project’s success or failure was ‘a progressive increase in the number of individuals arrested by the Interdiction Task Force Units…’. At least 24 people were sentenced to death for drug offences in 2010 and at least 27 drug offenders were sentenced to death in 2011
  • US, Japan, Thailand, China, Brunei, Singapore, Sweden, Germany contributed funds to drug detention centre infrastructure in Lao PDR. Physical abuse and right to health violations have been documented in drug detention centres across Lao PDR. Homeless people, those with mental disabilities and occasional drug users are confined alongside regular drug users and children mix with adults.

Thirty-two states retain the death penalty for drug offences. Among those, China, Iran and Viet Nam apply capital punishment prolifically for drug offences. Harm Reduction International’s research shows that all are in receipt of international funding and UN assistance for drug enforcement.

Partners in Crime illustrates the very recent case of UK woman Khadija Shah, now facing the death penalty in Pakistan, who was captured through a programme paid for by Canadian government money aimed at strengthening the Pakistan government’s capacity at international transit points, including airports. (4)

The report also documents the involvement of the Australian Federal Police in the capture in Indonesia of the ‘Bali Nine’, a group which included Australian citizens, some of whom are now on death row as a result. (5)

Hundreds of thousands of people have been held in drug detention centres in Asian countries, in particular China, Viet Nam, Cambodia and Lao PDR, supposedly for the purpose of treatment. They are held without trial for months or even years. Despite the fact that serious concerns have been raised about the absence of due process guarantees and forced labour, psychological and physical abuse within the centres, donors continue to supply funding for capacity building and even infrastructure.

“There are many written policy statements against these abuses from both donors and the UN, but as this report shows they are currently empty gestures” said Patrick Gallahue, Human Rights Analyst at Harm Reduction International and co-author of the report. “How else do you explain the UNODC´s excellent position statement on human rights while at the same time holding a fundraiser for a notorious drug detention centre in Lao PDR, and continuing to assist drug enforcement in Iran?”

The report comes just as the US, which has repeatedly supported construction of abusive detention centres in Lao, announced $400,000 in new donations to the country, including funding for these notorious centres. It recommends donor states and implementing agencies develop guidelines around drug control funding and a review of projects in high-risk environments, freezing support if necessary.

Keep up-to-date with drug policy developments by subscribing to the IDPC Monthly Alert.