Side event: Towards the abolition of the death penalty for drug offences

Side event organised by Harm Reduction International, Reprieve, Amnesty International, Penal Reform International and the International Drug Policy Consortium.

Maria Phelan, Harm Reduction International. The death penalty continues to be a very prominent issue in the debate today.

Luiz Guilherme Mendes de Paiva, Brazil. Last year we had some interesting conversations around the death penalty. We were in a very emotional mood as we had the first execution of a Brazilian national since the republican history of Brazil in 1989. We are struggling to keep this momentum in our internal and external negotiations. It’s hard to say something new about this topic, so let me say again what everybody knows – the 3 drug conventions don’t mention the death penalty. In 1979, only 10 countries had provisions on the death penalty, which increased to 36 states in 2000.  The conventions don’t explain the existence of this trend. It violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I am not comfortable with this as it implies that the death penalty is ok for other crimes. I would like here to push the argument further. The implementation of the death penalty is a violation of international law. In Brazil, we reject the death penalty. We reinstated it during the military dictatorship but it was never applied. One person was convicted, a journalist, but he was released. So we have a strong support for our national position on the opposition towards the death penalty. We have been advocating for the end of the death penalty for all crimes, and called for a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty, every time we could on the negotiations of the UNGASS outcome document. But since the beginning it was not an easy subject for which we could find agreed language. We are willing to continue to push the subject forward in the negotiations.

Robert Husbands, Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. Article 6.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights limits the use of the death penalty to most serious crimes. I want to start with a report on Indonesia, which dealt with this issue. In a similar report on Sudan, the Committee on Civil and Political Rights reached the conclusion again that the death penalty for drug offences was not compatible with article 6. One last concluding observation was made on Thailand in 2005, here again reaching a similar conclusion. The Committee has therefore consistently reported that death penalty for drug offences was not compatible with the Covenant. This was highlighted by a number of special rapporteurs. On 10 October 2015, a strong statement was made on International Day against the Death Penalty by the UN Secretary General. In 2014, the INCB also encouraged states to end the use of the death penalty. And in 2015, the OHCHR raised the issue again, in its report on drugs and human rights. UNODC, which opposes the death penalty, noted that at the very least, that UNODC would have no choice but to remove support to countries that continue to impose the death penalty for drug offences. The argument that the Human Rights Committee has used means that anything not related to intentional killing does not meet the “most serious crimes” threshold. This is not legally binding but is part of the human rights protection apparatus, and states are strongly encouraged to follow this advice. This is advocacy. The argument of deterrence is used by both sides – it is a deterrent/it does not deter. My argument is the “salami approach” – take it a slice at a time – remove the death penalty for more and more crimes until it is no longer used.

Mahmood Amry Moghaddam, Iran Human Rights. I will highlight the use of the death penalty for drug offences in Iran, one of the 33 countries retaining the death penalty for drug offences.  One of our main activities is documentation and reporting on the death penalty in Iran. Our latest report shows that there has been a significant increase in the use of the death penalty, and only 39% are reported by the Iranian authorities. The rest has been confirmed through independent sources – so the number of people executed may be much higher. 66% of executions are related to drug charges. 2015 was the year with the highest drug related executions in more than 25 years. We have had more than 2690 executions between 2010 and 2015. If you look at the anti-drug law in Iran, smuggling, producing drugs. When arrested, people are in solitary confinement, subject to torture, have no access to a lawyer. They are not announced, we don’t know who they are. We have done some research on some of them. Thanks to information to family, one of them met his lawyer for 15 minutes, the trial lasted for only 30 minutes and he was executed. Another was arrested based on false testimony, which was withdrawn twice, but the person was executed. The information shows that these people are not smugglers, they are mainly poor and marginalised members of society. A statement by the vice president said that during a visit to one of the poorest provinces of the country is where all males are executed for drug offences, because it is the only possibility to survive.

UNODC has cooperation with Iran. The previous cooperation ended in 2015, it has 3 sub-programmes: demand reduction, HIV control and crime, justice and corruption, and border management. This last one is the most problematic as indicators of success rely on the amount of drugs seized and traffickers arrested. A project report from Reprieve and Harm Reduction International show that this is not how you should rate “success”. Research by Reprieve shows an increasing correlation between funding for supply reduction efforts and increases in executions. Although we know that factors influencing executions are much more complex, it is interesting to see the link between aid and executions in Iran. In recent years you have heard UNODC praising Iran. In June, we had 105 people executed for drug offences – more than any country around the world.

If we look at evidence, there is no evidence that executions deter engagement in drug offences. Data shows that only in Tehran in March 2013-2014, 140 people were arrested every single day – so there is no deterrent effect. Iranian authorities stated that the abolition of the death penalty would be dangerous in Iran and abroad as traffickers would come to Europe. The head of the Iran Judiciary Human Rights Council stated that nobody was happy to see the number of executions so high and that he may consider a change in the legislation. But UNODC has signed a new 20 million dollar funding settlement for anti-drug efforts in Iran in December 2015, which would double counter-narcotics efforts which will last until 2019. It seems that the high number of executions has not had any effect, and we don’t know what kind of human rights safeguards would be imposed to ensure that the funding is not used for efforts that constitute human rights abuses.

SRS Recovery Society/Rebirth NGO in Iran. The law says that carrying more than 30kg of cannabis is punishable by the death penalty, but it is usually not being imposed. There seems to be bias in the data you have reported. And death penalty has a deterrent effect. We also need to define how serious is a serious crime.

Mahmood. According to Iranian authorities, executions have not contributed to the reduction of drug crimes, they acknowledge it themselves. I agree with you that not all people arrested with 30kg have not been executed, but we still had thousands of people on death row, this is 2 people executed every single day. So the fact that Iran is not executive all people caught is not an indication that Iran is moving towards the abolition of the death penalty. Regarding due process – the trials these people have been through and foreign citizens executed (including an Afghan youth) have shown that executions for drug crimes have no impact on fighting the drug crimes.

Robert. The concept of relativism around what is a serious crime is inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Luiz. When it comes to deterrence, there is a never ending discussion on that issue. We must establish some other metrics on what is proportionate and what is not other than evidence on deterrence. Other than that, in Brazil, we have long sentences for drug offences and we have difficult discussions around the fact that harsh punishment has no deterrence effect on crime rates. So we do have this discussion right now. If you condemn a young, black, poor person for 15 years for a minor drug offence, we can’t say that we are adhering properly to human rights standards. Discussions on proportionality should be taken to other levels, not only the death penalty.

Dan Dolan, Reprieve. To Mr. Husbands – UNODC has published a position paper on human rights considering a withdrawal of the funding. UNODC’s evaluation of its own programmes acknowledges that no action has been taken in line with human rights guidance. What do you feel is appropriate in monitoring and evaluating UNODC’s compliance with human rights guidance and policy?

Robert. Experience has shown to a certain extent that public pressure does play a role in affecting policy in the long time. It is important for the press to have a major role to have a discussion because then the issue goes mainstream, and you can open the debate with the government. International press has a large role to play. CSOs also have a major role to play in bringing this to the attention of diplomatic forums, including in Geneva. And third, my own organisation has a role to play. We are in discussions with UNODC and we have had discussions with them on that.

Daniel Joloy, Amnesty International. The Human Rights Committee and other mechanisms have raised the fact that death penalty is not “most serious”. Where do you see cooperation being improved?

Luiz. We have to further the dialogue. We can push for some language which highlights the necessity to establish cooperation and systemwide coherence. We must use the debate and language on the road to 2019. We should use this momentum to have this systemwide coherence as one of the guidelines for discussions in the revision of the Political Declaration and Plan of Action. It would be much more fruitful if there is no UNGASS in 2019. It is evident that it is a more binding document if we establish internal mechanisms to increase systemwide coherence in preparation to 2019. We are still below standard on this but the situation is clear, at least for some member states, that the issue should be part of the construction towards 2019.

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