Letter to Drink and Drugs News -- Death penalty: clear, unambiguous and authoritative

Date: 07 April 2008

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Below is a letter from Harm Reduction International published in the most recent edition of Drink and Drugs News (DDN), the leading magazine for substance misuse professionals in the UK. This is in response to letters criticising Harm Reduction International's opposition to the death penalty for drug offences following the publication of our major report on this issues as well as a cover story on the death penalty earlier this year in DDN.

Death penalty: clear, unambiguous and authoritative

In recent weeks, letters to DDN by Peter O’Loughlin and Kenneth Eckersley have criticised the findings of a report by Harm Reduction International on the death penalty for drugs (reported in DDN, 14 January, page 4).

These letters claim ‘bias’ on Harm Reduction International’s part for our conclusion that the death penalty for drug offences violates international law. However, unlike Messrs O’Loughlin and Eckersley, our conclusions are based not upon opinion or moralising, but rather on an analysis of the legal definitions involved and the decisions of relevant legal bodies.

While capital punishment per se is not illegal in international law, it is restricted in significant ways under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The most important of these restrictions is found under Article 6(2), which states that execution is only legal for what the treaty terms ‘most serious crimes’. While Messrs O’Loughlin and Eckersley may feel drug trafficking to be a ‘most serious crime’, their opinions are irrelevant in terms of law.

The independent expert legal body mandated to interpret the Covenant is the UN Human Rights Committee. The Committee has stated definitively that drug crimes of any nature do not meet the threshold of ‘most serious crimes’. Therefore, executions for drug offences violate international law. This interpretation is clear, unambiguous and authoritative, and has been supported by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Even UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa spoke out against the death penalty for drugs at the recent Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting.

In response to our report, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, sent Harm Reduction International a letter commending us for its ‘careful scholarship’. We certainly defer to her expert legal opinion on the accuracy of our conclusions. Indeed, if our report is ‘biased’ in any way, then it is biased in terms of urging respect for international law rather than justifying human rights violations.

We invite everyone to read our report on this important issue for themselves. It is available on our website www.hri.global.

Rick Lines
Senior Policy Advisor
Harm Reduction International

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