On World Day against Death Penalty, UN says practice deters neither drug crimes nor abuse

Abandoned cells in the main prison in Gao, Mali. Photo MINUSMA/Marco Dormino

10 October 2015 – The death penalty does not deter drug crimes, nor does it protect people from drug abuse, said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, reiterating the world body's ongoing call to abolish the practice altogether, while emphasizing that if used, that it be applied only to the crime of intentional killing.

“Curbing drug crimes is far more a matter of reforming justice systems and investing in prevention through the public health system, including access to treatment,” declared Mr. Ban in his message for the World Day Against the Death Penalty, marked each year on 10 October.

He notes that seven decades ago, only 14 countries had abolished the death penalty. Today, 82 per cent have either introduced moratoria by law or in practice, or have abolished the death penalty. This year's observance of the World Day against the Death Penalty draws attention to this progress and focuses on the death penalty and drug crimes.

“International law limits the application of the death penalty to the 'most serious crimes.' This means that it should only – if at all – be applied to the crime of intentional killing,” said the Secretary-General.

Indeed, he said, UN human rights bodies have repeatedly stressed that the use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes does not meet this threshold. The International Narcotics Control Board and other drug control bodies have encouraged States that impose the death penalty to abolish it for drug crimes, added the UN chief.

“I urge all States and individuals to join the United Nations as we continue to advocate for an end to the imposition of the death penalty,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, UN human rights experts have noted that around 1,000 executions for drug crimes take place worldwide every year.

Against that background, two UN Special Rapporteurs have underscored that “the imposition of death sentences and executions for drug offences significantly increases the number of persons around the world caught in a system of punishment that is incompatible with fundamental tenets of human rights.”

According to the experts, more than 30 States have legal provisions providing the death penalty for drug-related crimes and in some of them, such cases make up a significant proportion of the total number of executions carried out.

In his comments, Cristof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions said that in many States where the death penalty is used for drug-related offences, there is not a system of fair trial.

“The World Day [...] provides an opportunity to reflect on another year in which the number of States that have completely moved away from capital punishment has increased,” Mr. Heyns said. “However, it also prompts scrutiny of the extent to which a small minority of States violate international law by imposing the death penalty for drug offences.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits the imposition of the death penalty for any but the 'most serious' crimes. Drug offences, according to the Covenant, cannot meet this threshold, comparing to the crimes involving international killing, which is the 'most serious.'

“Certain States that persistently and openly flout this international standard are also acting contrary to an emerging customary norm that the imposition and enforcement of the death penalty, in breach of those standards, is a violation per se of the prohibition of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” said Juan E. Méndez, Special Rapporteur on torture.

Concerned that some global efforts to combat drug crime would inadvertently be contributing to unlawful executions, Mr. Heyns urged abolitionist States to ensure that they are not complicit in the use of the death penalty in other States under any circumstances.

Meanwhile, he stressed to international agencies and States providing bilateral technical assistance to combat drug crime that, they “must ensure that the programmes to which they contribute do not ultimately result in violations of the right to life.”

“We are looking forward to the time when it will no longer be necessary to have a special day on the death penalty; a time when all states have left this form of punishment behind them,” the Special Rapporteurs reaffirmed in their statement.

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