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.

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