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Using the death penalty to fight drug crimes violates international law, UN rights experts warn World Day Against the Death Penalty – Saturday 10 October

08 October 2015

GENEVA (7 October 2015) – “Executions for drug crimes amount to a violation of international law and are unlawful killings,” the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, Christof Heyns, and on torture, Juan E. Méndez, today reminded Governments. It is estimated that drug-related sentences could account for around 1,000 executions a year worldwide. 

“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,” the experts said, speaking ahead of the 13th World Day Against the Death Penalty, observed on 10 October.

They noted that more than 30 States have legal provisions providing the death penalty for drug-related crimes, and in certain countries, including Indonesia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, such cases make up a significant proportion of the total number of executions.

“Of particular concern is that these arbitrary sentencing regimes exist in several of the very small minority of countries around the world which most frequently resort to capital punishment,” Special Rapporteur Heyns said. “Moreover, in many States where the death penalty is used for drug-related offences, there is not a system of fair trial.”

“The World Day Against the Death Penalty 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.  The Human Rights Committee, the body responsible for the authoritative interpretation of the Covenant, has repeatedly made clear that drug offences do not meet this threshold, and that only crimes involving intentional killing can be ‘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 Special Rapporteur Méndez.

The experts welcomed the fact that international agencies and bodies charged with guiding programmes to counter the illicit drug trade have publicly called for the abolition of the death penalty for this category of crime. However, they remained concerned that “international cooperation to combat drug crime could, in certain circumstances, inadvertently be contributing to unlawful executions.”

“Abolitionist States must ensure that they are not complicit in the use of the death penalty in other States under any circumstances, but all States—whatever their stance on the death penalty—must refrain from acts that could contribute to an arbitrary execution, including any execution for drug offenses,” Mr Heyns said.

“International agencies, as well as States providing bilateral technical assistance to combat drug crime, must ensure that the programmes to which they contribute do not ultimately result in violations of the right to life,” the Special Rapporteurs stressed.

The two Special Rapporteurs reaffirmed that the death penalty has no role to play in the 21st century, and even less so in the case of drug-related offences. “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.”

(*) Check the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns (South Africa), is a director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, where he has also directed the Centre for Human Rights, and has engaged in wide-reaching initiatives on human rights in Africa. He has advised a number of international, regional and national entities on human rights issues. Learn more, log on to:

Juan E. Méndez (Argentina) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in November 2010. He is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defence of human rights. Learn more, log on to:

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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