Why is the UN Assisting Countries That Impose the Death Penalty for Drug Offenses?

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February 20, 2014 - By Hannah Hetzer

Last week, three human rights groups called on the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to immediately halt anti-drug funding to Vietnam after it was revealed that 30 people were sentenced to death for drug offenses in January in a court in northern Vietnam.

21 men and 9 women received the death penalty for heroin trafficking in what was the largest number of defendants sentenced to death in a single trial in the country’s court history. As is often the case in the drug war, many of these defendants are drug “mules” and represent the lowest rungs of the drug trafficking ladder. None of them received more than a day’s trial.

UNODC’s has dedicated $5 million for technical assistance, equipment, training and other support for Vietnam between 2012 and 2017, of which drug control is the largest part of the program. As an indicator of impact, the UNODC uses "the number of drug traffickers arrested, prosecuted and convicted." In a letter to the UNODC, Harm Reduction International, Reprieve and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty said:

“Our organizations have, for many years, been raising concerns about UN assistance for drug enforcement in countries that continue to apply the death penalty for drug offences. […] This strategy places UNODC's work in direct connection to the application of the death penalty. The UNODC strategy, while risky from a human rights perspective, fails to include any international human rights law within its legal framework. It contains no human rights risk assessment. This again raises the concern that UN programmes are assisting in operations that lead to the death penalty for those prosecuted, with no accountability mechanisms in place to ensure this is prevented and to react decisively when it occurs."

Two years ago, a few European countries halted funding of Iran’s drug control efforts through the UN because of the thousands of drug traffickers arrested and hundreds executed.

Countries that strongly oppose capital punishment, for any offense, should immediately halt their indirect complicity in these executions until countries like Vietnam place a moratorium on the death penalty for drug offenses. Drug control funding should be put into treatment, education, and health, rather than into putting people to death.

Hannah Hetzer is the policy manager of the Americas for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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