Time to Abolish Drug-Related Death Penalty

The human costs of the war on drugs are far-reaching. In 2015, Indonesia executed 14 people by firing squad for drug offenses after a four-year moratorium. Saudi Arabia executed 175 people in the last twelve months alone, almost a third of whom were accused of drug-related offences. Another 500 people were executed in Iran in 2014, 80 per cent of them drug-related offenders. A change in drug laws in all three settings would translate into a sharp reduction in executions.  

The death penalty is an unusually cruel and inhumane form of punishment. It also demonstrably fails to deter crime, drug-related or otherwise. Countries carrying out executions for drug offenses simply do not register significant shifts in either supply or demand. To the contrary, the drug trade is surprisingly resilient to the threat of capital punishment. Yet thousands of people languish on death row for drug-related crimes across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy is appalled by the continued application of laws subjecting drug offenders to execution. At least 13 countries, including China, Malaysia and Vietnam, apply mandatory death penalty for drug-related offences. As a result, judges have no discretion regarding the facts of a given case or individual characteristics of offenders. Fortunately, some governments are challenging the death penalty. In a recent UN General Assembly vote, 111 countries support the abolishment of the death penalty. On October 10th, the World Day Against the Death Penalty, we call on states to have the courage to abolish the death penalty for drug-related offences.

There is a growing global movement opposing the use of capital punishment for drug-related offenders. Countries that execute drug offenders are routinely denounced for committing human rights violations and disproportionate punishment by international organizations. Meanwhile, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights explicitly states that capital punishment be reserved for only the "most serious crimes". 

For its part, the UN Human Rights Council consistently urges governments to abolish capital punishment for drug offenses, noting that the latter does not fall within the category of most serious crimes. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also called on Member States to adopt international standards concerning the prohibition of the death penalty for drug-related offenses.

There are opportunities for countries supporting capital punishment to change course. While 32 countries, plus Gaza, still support the execution of drug offenders, they are clearly in the minority. Civil society groups in these states and around the world are agitating for change. Enlightened decision makers in settings where the death penalty is in force need to demonstrate courage to bring their laws in alignment with international standards. They could first suspend the use of capital punishment for drug-related offenses and with an eye on achieving full abolition.

In anticipation of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), to be held in April 2016, the Global Commission on Drug Policy urges all states to abolish or introduce a moratorium on the death penalty for drug offenses; that Member States honestly discuss the link between death penalty and the enjoyment of human rights, particularly the right to life; and that states give, through drug law reforms, alternatives to the death penalty for drug related offenders. The UNGASS is a unique opportunity to review, assess and evaluate the current drug control measures on a global level and end the death penalty for drug offences once and for all.