Judicial Killing in the War on Drugs—The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses

The numbers are shocking. 

At least 540 people executed for drugs in Iran in 2011. 

At least 16 beheaded for drug-related offenses in Saudi Arabia in the first six months of 2012. 

And thousands more languishing on death row awaiting a possible beheading, firing squad, lethal injection, or hanging. Many of them low-level mules, conned, coerced, or manipulated into carrying drugs into countries that retain capital punishment for drugs. 

A new report, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2012—Tipping the Scales for Abolition, identifies 33 countries or territories that still retain the death penalty for drug offenses, including 13 where the sentence is mandatory. The report documents the laws in place as well as how frequently the sanctions are applied. 

The report was launched with the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty at the UK House of Lords, hosted by Baroness Vivien Stern, the Chair of the group. 

While there have been alarming numbers of people who were executed or sentenced to death for drug offenses, Tipping the Scales for Abolition recognizes some positive legal and political developments in these countries. In 2012, Singapore and Malaysia recently took steps to review their mandatory death penalty for drug offenses. In India and South Korea, courtroom challenges helped overturn mandatory capital sanctions. 

As the findings of this report suggest, the global trend toward the abolition of the death penalty—particularly in the context of drug offenses—is moving in the right direction. Fewer than 10 countries actually carried out executions for drugs in 2011/2012 and the number of countries with capital drug laws on the books, are in decline.

Where these laws remain, however, they are entrenched in highly politicized “moral” rhetoric of governments. Drugs are posited as an “evil” that destroys the future of youth and society. Drug offenses are very often referred to as more dangerous than murder.

These arguments clash with human rights standards, which applies strict limits on the death penalty in international law. Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) calls on States to reserve the death penalty for what the treaty terms “most serious crimes.” The UN body—and numerous human rights scholars and experts—have repeatedly asserted that drug offenses do not meet this standard.

In defense of their death penalty policies, governments sometimes argue that as drugs have potentially fatal consequences, these crimes should be equivalent to murder. However, as Prof. William Schabas—a leading expert on international law and the death penalty—argues, in most cases, the drug traffickers have been arrested and the drugs been confiscated. This means, the cargo never reached the public and thus there is no choate lethal or grave offense for which they are being punished. 

While the movement to abolish the death penalty has made incredible strides in recent decades, what is not well-known is the role drug offenses play in modern capital punishment discourse. 

In many countries that retain the death penalty, drug offenders make up the majority of those who are condemned to die. While it would certainly be ideal to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, a major incremental step would be to ensure international standards are followed vis-à-vis capital punishment for drugs. 

HRI estimates that there may be as many as 1,000 people executed for a drug offense every year. But as the organization’s report shows, these sanctions are indefensible in international law—and they should be abolished.

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