New Video Highlights the Human Rights Costs of Drug Executions in Iran
20 April 2016: In a new video published today, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF) and Impact Iran say Iran must end its use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes. The video’s release coincides with the start of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) tasked with reviewing international drug control systems and assessing priorities. The UNGASS is an important opportunity to examine human rights failings and change priorities in drug policy in Iran and globally.
According to the UN, drug crimes do not constitute the “most serious crimes” for which the death penalty is narrowly permissible under international human rights law. Iran is the number one per-capita executor in the world, having put to death at least 1,050 people in 2015. Based on data collected by ABF, this figure is a 20-year high. About 70% of Iran’s annual executions are for narcotics-related offenses. Authorities have executed over 3,000 people since 2010 for drug crimes without tangible achievements in curtailing drug flow and use.
Yet, despite the Iranian government’s poor record, Iran is a member of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and is serving as the Vice President of this year’s UNGASS.
“The UN and its member states must use UNGASS as an opportunity to strongly urge Iran and others to abandon the use of capital punishment for drug offenses,” said ABF Executive Director Roya Boroumand. “Nothing has been more counterproductive than a global drug policy that violates human rights.”
Decades of an international war on drugs emphasizing punitive measures and neglecting basic human rights and due process, including in Iran, has only exacerbated the drug problem. Experts worldwide have advocated for the inclusion of a stronger human rights component in the international drug control system, including an explicit ban on drug-related capital punishment. In a joint letter, 195 human rights organizations warned that “the UNGASS process has failed to recognise the lack of progress achieved by international drug control over the past 50 years – substances under international control are more widely available and affordable than ever. It has failed to acknowledge the damage caused by current approaches: systemic human rights abuses, and continued use of the death penalty for drug offences.”
Iran and its reckless use of capital punishment exemplify the failure of this punitive approach to drug enforcement, according to the video released today by the Boroumand Foundation and Impact Iran. Despite topping a list of only seven countries that have used capital punishment against drug offenders since 2010, Iran’s drug problem has continued to worsen.
A growing number of Iranian officials have publicly acknowledged that Iran’s heavy-handed anti-narcotics policies, including mass arrests and executions, have done nothing to stem the flow of drugs into Iran or addiction rates. Addiction continues to rise by about 8% annually according to government sources. According to the former Head of Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters, in 2005, Iran had about 2.5 million addicts and more than another million occasional users. Iranian authorities reported arresting 340,000 people for drug offenses, including 110,000 addicts, between March 2014 and March 2015.
Iranian human rights defenders also repeatedly raised concerns that executions in the country often follow trials utterly lacking in internationally recognized safeguards. Defendants are routinely tortured and, too often, the only evidence presented against them is coerced confessions. Court proceedings can sometimes last only minutes and the accused often has no access to a lawyer.
“Without fair trials Iran has executed guilty and innocent alike,” said Boroumand. “The numbers of people being killed under these circumstances is shocking and must stop.”
With mounting domestic and international concern, several members of Iran’s Parliament proposed a bill in December 2015 to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment for drug offences that do not involve armed activities. Lawmakers introduced their bill with the following justifications:
“Many of those sentenced to death are individuals who, due to poverty and life’s financial difficulties, have been taken advantage of by the drug mafia, some without complete knowledge of the law, and are trapped [and used] by domestic as well as foreign groups; and, … the death penalty for drug traffickers and transporters has been assigned in terms of the quantity [of drugs involved], causing transporters to be arrested and preventing the law from reaching trafficking groups.”
This reform, if approved, is an initial step forward and will save lives. On 14 April 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein welcomed this move stating, “I hope the new parliament will adopt these changes,” but noting that “executions for drug-related offences … continue to be carried out in the meantime.”
The High Commissioner also called on Iran to impose a moratorium on all executions, joining prior calls by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran Ahmed Shaheed.
“Iran’s leaders, for the most part, understand that their drug-execution policy has failed to make things better and violates human rights, rightly subjecting them to harsh international criticism. They know what they need to do but what is missing so far is the political will to adopt a new approach,” added Boroumand. “The international community can play an important role by being true to its values and clear in its rejection of the death penalty for drug offenders. “