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Iran: Letter to the Secretary General regarding UN assistance for drug enforcement and the death penalty for drug offenses

Dear Mr. Secretary-General,

Human rights organizations have documented abuses in the context of drug law enforcement over many years. One of the clearest examples of serious abuse is the application of the death penalty for drug offenses. International human rights norms state that capital punishment, where it remains in use, should be reserved only for the most serious offenses. Drug offenses do not meet this standard, according to UN human rights mechanisms including the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, and the UN Human Rights Committee. 

As part of its mandate the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) provides states equipment, technical assistance, and capacity building for drug enforcement. It has been active for many years in assisting Iran with its drug enforcement efforts at both the national level and regional level via the ‘Triangular Initiative’ with Afghanistan and Pakistan. This assistance continues despite the fact that Iran executes more persons than any country in the world except China, with over 1500 executions since 2011 according to rights groups. The rapid pace of executions is continuing in 2014, with the Iranian government announcing at least 126 executions, and rights groups documenting at least 247 hangings as of May 12. The vast majority of executions in the past 4 years in Iran have been for drug-related offenses, according to the Iranian government’s own pronouncements.  In Pakistan, there are over 8000 people on death row, many for drug offences.

Since 2008, human rights organizations have repeatedly informed UNODC, a department of the UN Secretariat, of how, in Iran and other countries, its drug enforcement assistance has contributed, directly or indirectly, to the arrests of people who have later been sentenced to death. Despite UNODC’s awareness of these risks, it has not to our knowledge changed the way that it provides assistance to states that continue to apply the death penalty for drug offenses. Instead, we see repeated public support for the drug enforcement efforts of those states, lending legitimacy to their practices.

UNODC officials continue to praise publicly the drug enforcement efforts of the Iranian authorities, without protesting that convicted drug traffickers often are executed. At the High Level Segment of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March 2014, intended to review UN drug strategies, and at which the Deputy Secretary-General spoke of the need to integrate human rights into drug policies, the Executive Director of UNODC again praised Iran’s drug enforcement programs despite the ongoing executions. 

Iran is not the only country or UNODC program of concern. In February 2014, the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, Reprieve, and Harm Reduction International addressed a letter to the UNODC that raised concerns about UN support for drug enforcement in Vietnam. Concerns about UNODC support for border control along the borders of China, Vietnam, and Laos had been raised also since 2008 due to the application of the death penalty in these three countries. The 2014 letter followed the sentencing to death in one day of thirty people, all for drug offenses, in Vietnam. 

We attach correspondence with UNODC on both Iran and Vietnam for reference, as well as an appendix with additional background information.

We are not calling for aid conditionality. We are calling for an end to funding and assistance that contributes, directly or indirectly, to the abuses in question. In your 2014 report on the question of the death penalty submitted to the Human Rights Council, as in previous such reports, you raised concerns about the imposition of the death penalty for drug offenses and, in particular, about international and UN assistance for drug enforcement in retentionist states. Your concerns are shared by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, and other special procedures.

It is time for the UNODC to enforce robust human rights standards from project planning to ongoing monitoring to periodic and final evaluation. 

Given UNODC’s reticence to take concrete action and put its own human rights guidelines into practice we request:

  • That this issue be the subject of the next meeting of the Secretary-General’s Senior Policy Committee with a view to agreement across UN agencies on the need to avoid complicity in human rights abuses carried out in drug enforcement

More specifically, we request that the Senior Policy Committee agree to:

  • Concrete, time-bound, steps for UNODC to put its own human rights guidance into practice
  • An immediate freeze on UN support for drug enforcement in Iran and Vietnam
  • Funding of health and harm reduction programming in these countries
  • A transparent human rights risk and impact assessment of both country strategies and clear human rights standards explicitly included within each strategy moving forward
  • An audit of all existing UN drug enforcement assistance programmes in, or along the borders of, death penalty states for compliance with the 2012 UNODC human rights guidelines and the UN human rights due diligence policy 

We thank you for your consideration and look forward to your response.



Philippe Bolopion

United Nations Director

Human Rights Watch 


Rick Lines

Executive Director



Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam


Iran Human Rights 


Clive Stafford Smith

Executive Director 



Florence Bellivier




Raphael Chenuil

Executive Director


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