Which Countries Still Execute People for Drug Offenses?

The three worst executioners in the world, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are also those who execute most drug offenders. This may not sound surprising, yet, little is known about the reality of the death penalty for drug offenses in those countries.

Saturday, October 10, will be the 13th World Day against the Death Penalty, this year devoted to drug-related offenses. In the days leading up to it, several NGOs have, and will continue to, shed light on this issue by publishing a series of reports.

Harm Reduction International (HRI) was one of the first NGOs to raise the alarm by publishing a report on how the death penalty for drug offenses violated international human rights law in 2007. Their first Global Overview of the Death Penalty for Drug Offenses was subsequently published in 2010. This report, together with the 2011 and 2012 updates, opened a new area of work for abolitionists worldwide, and an area they knew little about.

On October 8, 2015 an updated version of the Global Overview was published, giving invaluable information on this issue. One of the key findings of the report is that “the death penalty for drugs is a rarity among states and is carried out by an extreme fringe.” Of the approximately 549 executions for drugs believed to have taken place in 2013, 546 were carried out in China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, out of the 33 countries that still have the death penalty for drug-related offenses in their legislation, at least 12 of them are not known to have ever executed a single person for a drug offense. 

Another report will be published on October 10 by the FIDH, as a complement to that of HRI, providing testimonials of activists, lawyers and people sentenced to death for drug offenses in Asia. The goal is to tell their stories and raise awareness about the concrete and complex reality of the death penalty for drug offenses. 

In addition to the already available information and mobilization tools prepared by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty ahead of World Day, a long-awaited tool will be published by the World Coalition on October 9: “How to answer the deterrence argument”. It explains why already existing studies cannot prove the deterrence effect one way or another. It also compares homicide rates and drug-related crime rates before and after abolition as well as in abolitionist and retentionist countries to show that there is no link whatsoever between the death penalty and crime rates. 

Looking ahead to the UNGASS on drugs

This World Day against the Death Penalty is an excellent opportunity to pave the way for the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs. The objective is to take stock of repressive laws against drugs and show that the death penalty for drug-related offenses generates more violations of human rights, without even succeeding in reducing the phenomenon of drug trafficking.

During an event looking at capital punishment in the context of international law and global drug control, Open Society Foundations launched a brief report outlining key recommendations on the death penalty for drug offenses for UN Member States to consider leading up to the UNGASS on drugs.   

The debate will go on during the International Harm Reduction Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from October 18 to 21. 

This 2016 UNGASS is crucial for many different areas of drug policy, including for the abolition of the death penalty. Although a consensus is unlikely to appear, more and more states are raising the issue. Following the 2014 Commission on Narcotic Drugs, 58 countries signed a statement deeply regretting “that the Joint Ministerial Statement did not include language on the death penalty” because of their unequivocal opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances, and because they considered that the death penalty undermined  human dignity and that errors in its application were irreversible. 

This call has been reiterated on the World Day this year with 18 Ministers of Foreign Affairs from all over the world signing a Joint Declaration calling for an end to the death penalty.

Because the death penalty is the most extreme form of harm that a country can inflict upon its citizens, and because drug offenses do not fall under the category of most serious crimes, most countries have stopped using it. Only a handful of increasingly isolated countries continue to do so, and now, the world is watching them.