Side event. The death penalty for drug offences: The role of international advocacy and diplomacy

Organised by Harm Reduction International with the support of Australia, Austria, Canada, Costa Rica, Mongolia, New Zealand, Switzerland, the European Union, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International

Zaved Mahmood, OHCHR (Moderator): Special greetings to Pat O’Hare, the founder of Harm Reduction International. In accordance with international human rights, law, death penalty may only be imposed for the most serious crimes and the Human Rights Committee has consistently interpreted most serious crimes as involving intentional killing. However many countries still use the mandatory death penalty for drug offences. In the last report by the Secretary General, he reiterated that there is no evidence that the death penalty deters crimes or leads to crime reduction. He called upon member states to abolish the death penalty for drug offences and to commute offences already handed down. While there are calls from the international community in support of this call, we see that in some cases, use of the death penalty has increased but also see decreases in 2022. As a result, drug executions account for about 30% of all executions globally. Ajeng will share more about the data presented in the new HRI report released this morning.

Katie Mead, Australia: I am very excited about this topic because Australia is one of the few countries in the world with a strategy for abolition which opens with these words: “Australia opposes the death penalty in all circumstances for all people. We support the universal abolition of the death penalty and are committed to pursuing this goal through all the avenues available to us.” We raise the death penalty with our international partners, everyone who retains the death penalty. We are very proud of our actions. We led with Costa Rica a UN General Assembly resolution calling for the moratorium on the death penalty, which passed. 5 of the states which supported that resolution still retain the death penalty. We raise the issue at all UPRs. We also recognize the role played by civil society, and engage with them in advocacy, e.g. joint working groups. We look forward to participating in the HRI conference in Melbourne next month. Australia’s opposition to the death penalty extends to its use for drug offences, recognizing that people in most marginalized groups are particularly affected. We also co-sponsor the resolution on human rights and drugs in Geneva. In 2022, we saw significant progress on abolition take place across the globe, including in Papua New Guinea, and Zambia. Abolition takes sustained advocacy, and I am heartened to see so many advocates today.

Ajeng Larasati, Human Rights Lead, Harm Reduction International: I will talk about the key statistics in our new report on the death penalty for drug offences. HRI works towards a world where people who use drugs and their communities are respected. I will present on our new report. Since our first groundbreaking report on this issue in 2007, we have provided regular updates on this. As of 2022, 35 countries retain the death penalty for drug offences. This remains the same in previous years. The retentionist countries are strongholds, resisting global trends towards abolition. 2022 also saw an increase in confirmed executions. At least 285 executions were confirmed to take place in 6 countries – 2 more than in 2021. There were 131 executions in 2021, a momentary drop due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At least 303 people were sentenced to death for drug offences in 18 countries. Transparency remains a problem in getting an accurate picture of developments. There are expected to be more numbers of executions than reported as there are many countries that do not provide public reports on their executions. 40% of people who were executed for drugs in Iran were from an ethnic minority group, showing the discriminatory impacts of drug laws. We saw attempts to re-instate the death penalty for the Philippines. It shows how difficult it is for drug control to be acknowledged as contributing to use of the death penalty. There are local and international actors in advocating against these executions, so support can be given to these actors, e.g. in Singapore. Lastly, please do join us for the HRI conference in Melbourne next month. We will continue strategizing for abolishing the death penalty for drug offences.

Chiara Sangiorgio, Amnesty International: we are an abolitionist organization and have a long-standing reputation for advocating against the death penalty. Today I will talk about something different, on the circumstances of use of the death penalty that renders its use unlawful. It is untenable at CND, we turn a blind eye to the death penalty and we don’t look at this. There are some areas I will focus on:

  1. Access to legal counsel – people who face the death penalty often don’t have a lawyer at the point of arrest, as due to socio-economic conditions that may not be able to pay for a lawyer and do not get support from the state. This is a problem because statements they make and circumstantial evidence is often used to convict. In Singapore for example, lawyer is not allowed to be present at the time of arrest. Sometimes, people are arrested on a weekend and the legal service isn’t open. Judges may side blindly with law enforcement.
  2. Presumption of guilt – in the law is enshrined presumptions of guilt, e.g. if found in possession of drugs, then presumed to know the drugs were there and intended it for trafficking. E.g. if have keys to room, then presumed to know the drugs were in that room. Onus of proving innocence shifts from prosecutor to defendant.
  3. Sentencing – mandatory penalty doesn’t allow chance to raise alternative circumstances. In Singapore for example, if found to be a courier, need a certificate of cooperation from attorney’s office, so then attorney has upper hand over judiciary to sentence the death penalty
  4. Pardons – are the prerogative of the executive. Many on death row are foreigners. There is a higher incidence of foreigners not being able to access pardon or commutations because they do not know how to.

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, Iran Human Rights: We are an Iranian NGO that is not allowed to practice in Iran. Most abolitionists in Iran are in prison. We are based in Norway and monitor use of the death penalty on daily basis. More than 90% of executions are not announced. It is thanks to human rights defenders, lawyers, families, people in prisons in Iran that we know of these executions. You can see on our website the number of executions every day, and it changes every day. For example, 2 days ago, 2 men were executed for drugs. Everyone charged with drug offences are on trial by revolutionary court in closed court. In the past, Iran used to execute many people for drugs but thanks to international pressure, e.g. from UNODC, the number dropped dramatically after 2017 which last for 3 years. In 2021, it started increasing again – 126 people executed, then 256 in 2022. For drug-related executions, it has increased from 5 in 2020, 15 in 2021, 34 in 2022 to 86 in 2023. You don’t often see such an increase in executions in such a short period of time. There has been no reaction from UNODC and governments funding projects in iran. We have seen in the past that international pressure works but a lack of reaction now will be interpreted as a green light for Iran. The aim is to spread fear especially amongst lower socioeconomic communities. I hope the UNODC and other governments see the need to take action on this.

Karen Gomez-Dumpit, former human rights commissioner, Philippines: To give you a background, I will provide a summary of a case to which we can draw lessons from. Mary Jane Veloso was arrested in Indonesia for being caught with 2.6kg of heroin in a suitcase. Her defence was that she was duped into carrying the suitcase by someone she knew. She had no lawyer at the time of arrest. She was sentenced to death even though the prosecutor’s recommendations was for life imprisonment. I will take you through why she was spared from the death penalty. The first time it was because there was a moratorium announced by the President at the time. Then in 2017 after the election of a new President she was sentenced with the death penalty. After that she was released when it was decided that her testimony could be invaluable for helping to tracking down traffickers. Lessons can be learned here by governments seeking to protect migrant workers on death row in other countries. From the arrest in 2010 to sentencing in 2011, there were already appeals for clemency and judicial review. When she was scheduled for execution in April, she asked for letters to be released which captured media and public attention. At the ASEAN summit at same time, after many letters were sent from families and some in ministries in the Philippines to their counterparts in Indonesia, it worked. The government also sent people to interview Mary Jane in Indonesia and concluded that they needed Mary Jane to testify to the trial of a drug trafficker. The mobilization of the whole of government really did ensure success in preventing Mary Jane from being executed. From the Department of Justice to Foreign Affairs to the President and Vice President that made sure Mary Jane’s release was followed through. It is the confluence of events and actions from civil society, government and family who were empowered to claim their rights against the governments of the Philippines and Indonesia. If there is a case that shows the support of the Philippines government to protect migrant workers, it is the case of Mary Jane.

Zaved: on the data that you showed Mahmood, does it cover all executions?

Mahmood: yes but we also saw that from recently, drug executions accounted for more than half of all executions so we are back to the situation from before 2017 now. In 2017, the government changed the drug law, the threshold quantities, to make it harder to sentence a person with the death penalty. But now, police can force people to make confessions.

Ricky: how can international diplomacy be used to stop the human rights violations leading to the death penalty in Iran?

Mahmood: previously, it was police actions that led to increased use of the death penalty. UNODC provides some assistance on the harm reduction programmes. Countries funding Iran must make sure that it doesn’t go to law enforcement which results ultimately in complicity with execution of people.

Ajeng: if you want to make the change, it can happen. It goes back to the leadership of governments and UN agencies. We need to make the government and the UN to want to make the change so that change will happen, e.g. pushing the UN Secretary General to say something on this.

Chiara: UNODC can monitor the use of the death penalty too, it shouldn’t fall on civil society to do this.

Mahmood: last time, we saw clearly the political costs of executions became too high, that’s why they stopped it. Now, the cost is not high at all because they gradually increased it and there were no reactions. That’s why we are calling on donors to stop funding Iran and react to the executions.

Zaved: so you are saying that donors need to implement due diligence when making funding decisions.

Karen: we call on the UNODC to always be loud and clear about abolition of the death penalty. Some countries think that the death penalty is a good way of implementing the drug treaties. Other human rights mechanisms, e.g. the UPR, are ways of reminding states that this is not the solution.

Jia Wern, ADPAN: may I clarify that in Malaysia, we are about to table changes to end mandatory use of the death penalty at the end of March. It is happening because of international pressure. The UNODC has been funding a lot of enforcement efforts in Malaysia – it really has to fix its funding priorities in certain countries.

Kokkila: I have a comment. It is important not to see use of the death penalty in a vacuum – it is from authoritarian regimes. So we need to call on supporters to help us open up spaces to challenge this. For example, why does Singapore enjoy so much credibility on so many platforms even though there are so many horrific things they do, e.g. no independence of the judiciary. There needs to be reputational and material costs to use of the death penalty.

Zaved: encourage you to share the report with governments and the UNODC. I quote Kirsten Han on the death penalty: “The death penalty is a system that forces us to forget our humanity. It pushes us to think of other human beings as undesirable and disposable. The death penalty is an extraordinary injustice that only works when people can be persuaded to turn away, avert their gaze, and accept state violence. We must make them turn back, pay attention, and recognize the inhumanity.”

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