According to a report from Harm Reduction International (HRI), executions for drug-related offences surged in 2022, despite a global shift towards abolition. The report revealed that there were at least 285 executions for drugs last year, more than double the number of the previous year, when at least 131 people were executed. The number of death sentences handed out to those found guilty of drug crimes also rose, with at least 303 people in 18 countries sentenced to death. That was 28 percent more than in 2021. More than 3,700 people on death row around the world are now there as a result of drug offences, it added.
HRI warned that this figure is likely to reflect only a percentage of all drug-related executions worldwide, noting the extreme secrecy surrounding the death penalty in many of the countries that most use it, including China, Vietnam and North Korea. The surge in executions of drug offenders comes despite a continuing shift globally against the use of the death penalty, and as some jurisdictions took steps to limit its use.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy says the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences does not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes” – for the purposes of article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – and therefore is in breach of international human rights law. The United Nations General Assembly, and the secretary-general, have also echoed that stance.
HRI said the surge in confirmed drug-related executions was driven by Iran and Saudi Arabia, which ended a 20-month moratorium on such executions that had been announced in early 2020. The report also highlighted Singapore’s continued use of the death penalty for drug offences, a policy that the city state’s government continues to defend as a deterrent to drug trafficking.
Among the most high-profile was the case of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a 33-year-old Malaysian whose case attracted global interest and fuelled some of the largest ever protests against the death penalty in Singapore. Nagaenthran was hanged in April last year with the court dismissing concerns that he had learning disabilities. Laws were also changed in November 2022 making it more difficult for condemned prisoners to challenge their sentences.
HRI noted that talks were under way in the Philippines, which is facing an investigation by the International Criminal Court over former President Rodrigo Duterte’s “drug war” in which thousands have died, to reinstate the death penalty for “high-level drug traffickers”. In October last year, it was one of 20 priority pieces of legislation to go before lawmakers for debate. The legislation would need to pass the Senate and secure the president’s approval before becoming law.
There were some positive developments, as Malaysia moved ahead with plans to remove the mandatory death sentence for drug offences. The government said in July 2022 that there were 1,343 people on death row, two-thirds of them for drug crimes.
HRI said that more needed to be done to make the countries executing drug offenders reconsider. “The fact that these blatant violations of international standards and social commitments avoided almost all political, diplomatic, or economic repercussions sends a dangerous message to retentionist countries that executions, and therefore death sentences, can continue with impunity,” the report said, noting that executions for drug offences last year made up more than 30 percent of all executions, the highest since 2017.
“While more countries abolished the death penalty in 2022, the use of capital punishment for drug offences is going in a markedly different direction, impinging on the likelihood of achieving global abolition.”