OCTOBER 9 — It is World Day Against the Death Penalty 2023, and the year looks to be a yet another devastating for the use of the death penalty for drugs. After a historic decrease in confirmed global executions for drug offences in 2020, countries which retain the death penalty for drugs resumed executions at an alarming level throughout 2021 and 2022. This grotesque trend has been largely unchallenged by key international actors.

This World Day Against the Death Penalty coincides with a report on the UN Secretary General on the death penalty and a biennial resolution on the question of the death penalty at the United Nation Human Rights Council.

This year’s resolution aim to put an emphasis on protecting the rights of people facing the death penalty and strictly limits its use to the most serious crimes; a category drug offences do not fall within.

Further restrictions on the use of the death penalty are urgently needed. Iran Human Rights reports that at least 206 people have been executed for drug-related charges in Iran in the first six months of 2023. In July, Singapore executed Saridewi Djamani for trafficking about 30 grams of heroin. Saridewi was the first women to be executed in Singapore in almost two decades. China executed a South Korean national for drug trafficking in August (the first time China has executed a citizen of South Korea in nine years); and on 2 October, a lawmaker in the Philippines revived a legislative proposal to re-introduce the death penalty for drug offences.


As retentionist and outlier countries continue to flout international human rights standards, the question must be asked – is a lack of diplomatic pressure by abolitionist governments and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) signalling a free pass on the death penalty?

Last year, the case of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a Malaysian national in Singapore who had spent over a decade on death row for trafficking less than three tablespoons worth of diamorphine, galvanisedunprecedented support for ending the death penalty in Singapore, with hundreds of people gathering to protest before and after the execution.

It sparked national and international outcry with UN human rights experts, disability rights and drug policy reform activists, the Malaysian Prime Minister and King, Richard Branson, a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and actor Stephen Fry speaking out against the execution. Despite the public outcry, the government of Singapore went ahead with the execution.


The case also laid bare many of the long-standing issues with the imposition of the death penalty for drugs, including the disproportionate impact on marginalised people and communities.

There have been campaigns in Singapore by brave lawyers and activists to halt other executions in the past few years. However, such individuals have been targeted and harassed by Singaporean authorities, who have frequently invoked the Public Order Act to investigate, prosecute and convict human rights defenders for the legitimate exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

And in the face of bravery, protests and advocacy in many countries with the death penalty, there has been deafening silence from abolitionist governments and a lack of vocal international leadership pushing for an end to executions and reform of laws. UNODC failed to publicly condemn the executions, implicitly sending a dangerous message to retentionist countries that executions will go unsanctioned.

This sits in contrast to previous statements by UNODC opposing the use of the death penalty, where they specifically urged countries to adhere to their commitments to promote balanced, human rights-based approaches to drug control.

The death penalty is an abhorrent, outdated and inhumane form of punishment. Applying it for drug offences is a violation of international human rights law, as has been repeatedly reaffirmed by numerous international authorities and human rights bodies.

The resumption of, and rhetoric around executions illustrates a crucial truth; progress on the death penalty is fragile and now is a critical moment to sustain pressure and push for a world which rejects killing as a component of criminal legal systems.

Without vocal opposition and comprehensive reforms, thousands of people on death row will be killed. It is imperative that we remove drug policy as a tool retentionist countries can use to impose this inhumane punishment.

We cannot abolish the death penalty without drug policy reform.

* Ajeng Larasati is the Human Rights Lead at Harm Reduction International.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.