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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

Complicity or Abolition? The catastrophic consequences of good intentions

Dr Rhona MacDonald, Freelance editor (

Would it surprise or even shock you to know that the European Commission, ( individual European countries, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC- may be complicit in executions for drug offences in countries that still impose the death penalty? Well, according to a report, Complicity or Abolition? The Death Penalty and International Support for Drug Enforcement ( from the non-governmental organisation, The International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA) ( specific executions and death sentences for drug offences can be linked to drug enforcement activities funded by European governments and/or the European Commission and implemented through UNODC.

The death penalty for drug offences is currently in force in 32 countries and the report identifies European and UNODC supported drug enforcement projects in death penalty countries such Iran, Viet Nam and China. The rationale for this serious assertion is that donor funding, including training and capacity-building activities, if successful, can result in increased convictions of people on drug charges and therefore increase the potential for increased death sentences and executions in countries that retain the death penalty fro drug offences.

The report makes clear that it is obviously not the intention of donors and the UNODC to unwittingly be involved in the execution of people charged with drug offences, an embarrassing and somewhat hypocritical situation given European donor countries’ own abolitionist (to the death penalty) policies and UN General Assembly resolutions calling for a moratorium on the death penalty for all offences.

However, donors and the UNODC should be aware of the serious consequences of their actions and act now to reduce the risk of further human rights abuses connected to drug enforcement policies. The report’s recommendations are sensible—and doable. But ideally, 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 for all donor financial and technical assistance and capacity-building for drug enforcement.

This report is yet another stark reminder of the long list of “unintentional collateral damage” caused by donor dictatorship. According to the old adage, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I don’t know about that but the road to gross human rights violations certainly seems to be.

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