The death penalty for drug offences: ‘Asian values’ or drug treaty influence?
By Rick Lines, Damon Barrett and Patrick Gallahue
Recent mass executions by the Government of Indonesia have thrown the international spotlight on the death penalty for drug offences, and ignited debates between abolitionist and retentionist States on the legality and efficacy of this sanction. This international attention is to be welcomed.
When we established the death penalty for drugs project in 2007 at the NGO Harm Reduction International, it was the first and only project specifically dedicated to research, analysis and advocacy on what at the time was a little understood issue. Our reports tracked State practice, estimating that up to 1,000 people a year were executed for drug offences worldwide, promoted the case that the death penalty for drugs constitutes a violation of international human rights law and documented direct links between UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) country assistance programmes and executions for drug offences.
But despite the clear evidence of the illegal nature of the sanction, and the growing chorus of voices calling for its abolition, a small and increasingly isolated group of countries continues to kill people for drug offences. In executing fourteen people in a matter of months, the Government of Indonesia has aligned itself with the extreme fringe of even this isolated group, joining just four other States (China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam) that execute people for drug offences with regularity and/or in great numbers.
Political leaders and commentators often try to excuse or explain the death penalty for drug offences in Asian or Middle Eastern countries on the basis that the practice reflects unique values and traditions of the regions, or that the application of international human rights law represents a foreign intervention into domestic matters. However, like so many defenses of this indefensible practice, this one crumbles under scrutiny.
For the majority of States actively executing drug offenders, the practice is about as ‘traditional’ in legal or historical legal terms as the microwave oven is in cooking terms, and in most cases even less so. Most of the dozen States that actively execute drug offenders adopted these laws from the 1980s onwards, suggesting that rather than reflecting traditional ‘values’ of the region these policies are instead a response to the anti-drugs climate of the period, and the drafting and adoption of the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, the third UN drug treaty that established State obligations in international law to enact harsh penal provisions for drug offences at domestic level.
Consider some of those States actively executing drug offenders, and compare the dates of enacting these laws against their signing or ratification of the 1988 drug treaty.
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- Rick Lines
- Patrick Gallahue
- Damon Barrett