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European Commission and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime funding supporting programmes that lead to death sentences and executions

Date: 21 June 2010

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International counter-narcotics operations supported by European governments and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) are leading to people being sentenced to death and in some cases executed, according to a new report released today by the International Harm Reduction Association (Harm Reduction International).

The report titled - Complicity or Abolition? The Death Penalty and International Support for Drug Enforcement - exposes the links between the carrying out of executions and the financial contributions from European governments, the European Commission and the UNODC to support drug enforcement operations in countries that use the death penalty such as China, Iran and Viet Nam.(1) The report notes that such operations continue to be funded without appropriate safeguards despite the fact that the abolition of the death penalty is a requirement of entry into the Council of Europe and the European Union and that the United Nations advocates strongly against capital punishment.

“It is not the intention of these programmes to see people sentenced to death or executed, but it is a fact that it is happening,” said Harm Reduction International Deputy Director Rick Lines and co-author of the report. “Many people around the world would be shocked to know that their governments are funding programmes that are leading people indirectly to death by hanging and firing squads.”

At least 32 countries maintain the death penalty for drug offences, although the enthusiasm with which they implement these laws varies significantly. (2) The report identifies European and UNODC supported drug enforcement projects in death penalty countries such Iran, Viet Nam and China.

The UNODC, the European Commission and individual European governments are all actively involved in funding and/or delivering technical assistance, legislative support and financial aid intended to strengthen domestic drug enforcement activities in states that retain the death penalty for drug offences. Such funding, training and capacity-building activities – if successful – result in increased convictions of persons on drug charges, and the potential for increased death sentences and executions.

Donor states, the European Commission and UNODC may therefore be complicit in executions for drug offences in violation of international human rights law, and contrary to their own abolitionist policies and UN general assembly resolutions calling for a moratorium on the death penalty for all offences.

“Harm Reduction International universally condemns the use of the death penalty for drug offences as a breach of international human rights law and as a failed drug policy approach,“ said Lines. “The fact that in some cases this abusive practice in countries like China and Iran is being financially supported by European and UN donors is politically and morally unacceptable, particularly given their otherwise strong commitments to the abolition of capital punishment.”

Case Study: Execution of Chinese national Han Yongwan, 2008

The report tracks a number of European-funded/UNODC-implemented projects in countries that have the death penalty for drug offences, and contains a number of case studies that identify individuals who have been arrested and executed as a direct consequence of those projects:

For example, in 1993, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by six East Asian countries with the assistance of UNODC. All but one of these countries – Cambodia – retains the death penalty for drug offences. (3)

The vast majority of funds (61%) and the focus of the agreed project activities are on law enforcement. The major donors of the total US $26 million budget for the various programmes are the United Kingdom (24%), the United States (24%), Japan (24%) and Australia (10%). Other donors include the European Commission (3%), Sweden (3%), Canada (2%) and UNAIDS (5%). Most of these donor states and the European Commission have abolished the death penalty.

The project is promoted by the UNODC as a model of successful international cooperation against drug trafficking and cultivation. To that end, UNODC has produced a poster series on the history of the project’s development and activities.

A centrepiece of the agreement is the establishment of at least seventy Border Liaison Offices (BLOs) throughout the region. The objective of the BLOs is to “foster greater cross-border law enforcement cooperation…on drug traffickers to enable fast and effective interventions by law enforcement officers on the other side of the border.”

According to the UNODC, between 1999—2005 the BLOs were active in more than 700 cases, ‘often accompanied by huge seizures’. One of the ‘larger successes’ of the MOU project identified by UNODC was the arrest of Han Yongwan. A major regional drug trafficker, Han Yongwan was arrested by Lao authorities in September 2005 as part of a joint operation with China, Thailand and Myanmar under the MOU agreement and BLO project. He was subsequently extradited to China, where he was executed on 26 June 2008 to mark the UN’s annual International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Trafficking.

The UNODC poster series promoting the MOU project and displayed at the UN building in Vienna in March 2009 includes a photograph of Han Yongwan, hooded and handcuffed, while he is posed among a group of drug enforcement officials upon his handover form Lao to Myanmar in 2005.

While the operations identified in Harm Reduction International report are not intended to increase the application of the death penalty, this does not exclude donor governments or the UNODC from responsibility for the human rights impacts of their activities.

“The European Union and UNODC are opposed to capital punishment,” said Rebecca Schleifer, Advocacy Director of the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “But their drug enforcement activities put them at risk of supporting increased death sentences and executions in some countries. European donors and the UNODC should make sure that their drug enforcement activities do not result in human rights abuses, including the application of the death penalty.”


The report also emphasises the potential of European governments, the European Commission and UNODC to use their influence to restrict or abolish the death penalty for drug offences. Its recommendations include:

• In keeping with Resolution 2007/2274(INI) of the European Parliament, the European Commission should develop guidelines governing international funding for country-level and regional drug enforcement activities to ensure such programmes do not result in human rights violations, including the application of the death penalty

• The abolition of the death penalty for drug-related offences, or at the very least, evidence of an ongoing and committed moratorium on executions, should be made a pre-condition of financial assistance, technical assistance and capacity building and other support for drug enforcement.

• A formal and transparent process for conducting human rights impact assessments as an element of project design, implementation and evaluation should be developed and implemented as part of all drug enforcement activities.

• International guidelines on human rights and drug control should be developed to guide national responses and the design and implementation of drug enforcement projects

“In our view, the abolition of the death penalty, or at the very least an ongoing moratorium on executions must be a pre-condition of any counter-narcotics support,” concluded Lines.

Notes to Editors:

(1) Complicity or Abolition? The Death Penalty and International Support for Drug Enforcement, Rick Lines, Damon Barrett and Patrick Gallahue

© 2010 Harm Reduction International

(2) Death penalty for Drug Offences – Global overview 2010, Patrick Gallahue & Rick Lines

© 2010 Harm Reduction International

(3) pp 19-20, Complicity or Abolition? The Death Penalty and International Support for Drug Enforcement, Rick Lines, Damon Barrett and Patrick Gallahue

© 2010 Harm Reduction International,

Further information

Michael Kessler, Harm Reduction International Media relations
Mobile: +34 655 792 699
Skype: mickgpi

The Harm Reduction International is one of the leading international non-governmental organisations promoting policies and practices that reduce the harms from all psychoactive substances, harms which include not only the increased vulnerability to HIV and hepatitis C infection among people who use drugs, but also the negative social, health, economic and criminal impacts of illicit drugs, alcohol and tobacco on individuals, communities and society. Harm Reduction International is an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.