The death penalty: Never justifiable, never acceptable

Helen Clark

Helen Clark

While the world is witnessing a positive shift towards progressive decriminalisation in the shaping of drug policies and an accompanying decrease in drug-related executions, punishments for drug offences continue to be drastically disproportional and still too common in certain countries today.

Although Singapore authorities had not carried out executions since 2019, in recent times there has been a sharp increase in the handing down of the sentence of the death penalty for drug-related offences.

Then just two days ago, on March 30, Abdul Kahar bin Othman was executed in Singapore. He had been sentenced to death for a drug offence in 2015. There is also the ongoing case of Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, who could be executed within days after an appeal court upheld the death sentence against him on March 29.

The 1973 Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) is the basis for Singapore’s national drug policy. Despite the draconian and disproportionate sentences it codifies – from imprisonment, strokes of the cane, and the mandatory death penalty for at least 20 different drug-related offences (be it trafficking, importing, or exporting specific amounts of drugs) – the MDA has not fulfilled its intention of preventing and combatting illicit drug trafficking and drug use.

There is plenty of evidence to explain why. It is more often than not the case that those people caught committing drug offences are the lower-level dealers and individual users, while those at the top of the “totem pole” go unnoticed and unpunished.

The burden of the focus on low-level offenders generally falls on more vulnerable and marginalised groups which end up being the victims of an overwhelmed and obsolete criminal justice system.

The demographics of people facing the death penalty for drug-related offences are remarkably similar the world over, whether it be Singapore, sub-Saharan Africa or the United States: disproportionately women, minorities and the economically disadvantaged. At present, at least 3,000 people are on death row for drug-related offences in approximately 35 countries. In 2021, there were at least 131 executions for those same offences, a 336 percent increase from the previous year. These numbers reflect a regrettable trend, which is also apparent in an 11 percent increase in the number of people receiving the death sentence for drug offences.

In September 2021, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tabled a report, Question of the death penalty, which emphasised the need to abolish the death penalty universally and protect the right to life for all.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy reiterates that 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 thus clearly violates international human rights law.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on torture, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the Economic and Social Council, the General Assembly, and the Secretary-General support this interpretation. The International Narcotics Control Board has also encouraged states that impose the death penalty to abolish it for drug-related offences.

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