Over the past few months, Indonesia made the headlines with the series of executions of people condemned for drug trafficking offences.  This has sparked much discussion around the world, with many activists and policy makers alike considering the use of capital punishment as a gross human rights violation, necessitating an urgent reform of national laws.

On 23rd June, as part of the Support. Don’t Punish Global Day of Action, activists, academics, policy makers and people who use drugs gathered at the UK Houses of Parliament to discuss the impact of drug control on human rights, with a specific focus on the death penalty. The event was chaired by Baroness Stern and included powerful and compelling speeches from MP Jeremy Corbyn, Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group, Dr. Rick Lines from Harm Reduction International, Dan Dolan from Reprieve, and Ann Fordham from the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

Jeremy Corbyn kicked off the discussions by highlighting the severe human rights violations caused by the war on drugs in Latin America, with thousands of deaths and disappearances, lack of access to justice, disproportionate use of violence by the police, no access to legal advice, and dire prison conditions, to name a few. Jeremy Corbyn made a strong link between engagement in the drug trade and issues related to poverty, vulnerability and under-development. Are low-level drug offenders criminals or victims? According to Jeremy Corbyn, this clearly necessitates an urgent evaluation of our drug control strategies.

Rick Lines, representing HRI, then focused more closely on the issue of the use of death penalty for drug offences. Today, around 30 countries and jurisdictions retain the death penalty for drug offences, but very few are high-application states – about 7 or 8 according to HRI (these notably include China, Iran, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia). Others tend to retain the death penalty in their drug laws but not use it, or only in exceptional cases. Indonesia, Rick reminded us, used to be a low-application state, until recent months. It seems clear, therefore, that the use of the death penalty for drug offences is not a historical, cultural or even a regional practice – “it is a government policy choice”, he stated. Rick concluded by mentioning 10by20, a campaign that calls on member states to redirect 10% of resources currently allocated for drug law enforcement (including on the use of the death penalty) towards health and harm reduction programmes, by 2020.

Dan Dolan from Reprieve then made a compelling speech on how foreign aid is currently being used to execute drug offenders worldwide. The UK remains the largest European country to fund supply reduction measures in countries that retain the death penalty – this is despite the fact that the UK is firmly and categorically opposed to the death penalty, both at home and abroad. In a recent report, Reprieve looked specifically at UK-funded programmes in Iran and Pakistan, and how such funding had been used in drug control in those countries. Reprieve found that these had led to many executions, including of children. “Is this achieving the objectives of UK drug policy?” Dan Dolan asked. According to an independent UN evaluation of UK funding in Pakistan, this is more than doubtful – in fact, drug trafficking seems to have increased there, and this is without counting the “grotesque human rights abuses” related to capital punishment.

Ann Fordham from IDPC started her speech by presenting the Support. Don’t Punish campaign, focusing more specifically on the upcoming global day of action to be held on 26th June. On that day, 150 cities worldwide will join forces to call for drug policy reform. Ann then turned to the UK positions in international drug policy forums, in particular the role it could play at the upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs to be held in April 2016. The UNGASS is coming at a critical juncture to open a meaningful debate around drugs and assess progress made in drug control. It is hoped that this “session can give the issue the prominence and urgency that it deserves”, declared Ann Fordham, in light of the national-level drug policy shifts that have been observed in the past few years. The USA, for instance, known as the key promoter of the war on drugs, has recently shifted its position away from a war on drugs rationale, recognising the fact that they could not incarcerate their way out of the drug problem. As for the UK, they “can be loud and proud on their commitment to health and human rights”, stated Ann. In fact, the UK has been a leading voice in global policy debates around the protection of human rights, access to harm reduction and essential medicines, and on the abolition of the death penalty. Ann also highlighted the UK’s work in pushing for civil society participation in drug policy debates. The UNGASS, she concluded citing UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, should truly consist in a “wide-ranging debate considering all available options”, and the UK should play a leading role in making this happen. 

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