Singapore is one of four countries in the world that executes individuals for drug offences. With another two prisoners, Abdul Rahim Shapiee and Ong Seow Ping being executed on the 5th of August, it takes the number of inmates killed by the state to 10 in just four months. These recent executions have reopened the conversation about Singapore’s controversial use of the death penalty and the issues surrounding capital punishment.
Singapore has some of the strictest drug laws in the world. Drug possession and drug dealing in Singapore is a serious crime and under the Misuse of Drugs Act can lead to a maximum 10-year imprisonment, $20,000 fines, or the death penalty. The death penalty is reserved for those found guilty of drug trafficking. The Act classes trafficking as being involved in selling, transporting, delivering, distributing, or offering to do any of these acts.
Due to Covid-19, all executions were postponed for two years. Since the state resumed executions, there have been several high-profile, controversial cases in Singapore. Earlier this year, Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, who had been on death row since 2010, was executed for being caught with 43g of heroin. He was executed, despite medical experts finding that he had an intellectual disability, which sparked outrage from UN Human Rights experts, calling the decision to execute a person with intellectual disabilities and drug related offences a “violation of the right to life and the right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and amount to unlawful killings”
Article 6 of the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights (ICCP) permits the use of the death penalty in limited circumstances. The crime must involve intentional killing, but some countries permit the use of the death penalty for crimes other than those of extreme gravity involving intentional killing, including for drug-related crimes or terrorism charges. Through a series of resolutions adopted from 2007, the General Assembly has urged states to respect international standards that protect rights of those facing the death penalty, restrict its use and reduce the number of offences that are punishable by death. Despite this, Singapore shows no signs of slowing down with using the death penalty as punishment for drug offences. The international community has been consistently critical of Singapore’s decision to execute for drug offences. The International Court of Justice, following this week’s executions, commented that Singapore should halt all planned executions, as drug offences do not meet the international threshold for capital punishment.
The international community is right to criticize Singapore’s use of the death penalty. The use of the death penalty raises many human rights issues. International law states that the death penalty should be reserved for the most serious crime involving intentional killing which makes drug offences such as trafficking not a severe enough crime to warrant capital punishment. This means Singapore’s use of the death penalty is incompatible with international law. The international community and the 170 states that have either abolished or introduced a moratorium on the death penalty either in law or in practice have done so because the use of the death penalty violates the right to life and the right to live free from torture or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment. Not just this, but the threshold for being a drug trafficker in Singapore is questionable. The law is so harsh that even if an individual is found to have the keys to a building or vehicle containing drugs, you are presumed guilty of drug trafficking. This violates a person’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty – a right that is essential to the principle of fair trial.
The use of the death penalty not only raises human rights issues, but there is overwhelming evidence that imposing the death penalty for drug possession and trafficking, does not solve problems associated with drugs nor does it deter individuals from committing these crimes. This is particularly important in Singapore’s case, as it often responds to criticism of its capital punishment use by citing its usefulness for deterrence. There is no evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to the drug trade. Since 2019, trafficking into Singapore by foreign nationals has increased and drug markets continue to thrive and grow around the world.
The OHCHR’s 2015 report on the use of the death penalty found that there is “No empirical research supports the claim that the threat of execution, or even of a lengthy prison term, deters drug use or drug trafficking”. The lessons of execution for drug offences are not effective on an individual who is heavily involved in drug trafficking. We know from research in the United States relating to capital punishment that prospect of death for individuals has no deterrence effect. The OHCHR conclude this is because “Drug offenders are strongly motivated by both economic interests and the personal thrills of their lifestyle; they see the risk of detection and punishment as remote and the rewards of drug offenses as well worth any price.” Research conducted for the report which compared drug prices and availability in countries that execute and those that do not found no deterrence effect. If there was a deterrent effect, drug prices would be higher in places that execute drug offenders and there is no evidence of this. Instead, prices remained similar and there has been a steady increase in drug seizures over the past decade, a sign of increased availability and trafficking, even in the face of execution.
Despite the evidence, and neighboring countries such as Malaysia removing the death penalty as the mandatory punishment for drug trafficking in 2018, Singapore strongly defends its use. Singapore’s Law Minister K. Shanmugam maintains that there is staunch support for the government’s current position on drug offences.
The Singapore government should be listening to international outcry at its use of the death penalty for drug offences. Not only does its use not comply with international law and violate human rights, but it is not an effective method of deterrence. A more appropriate response to those found guilty of drug trafficking would be imprisonment, with longer sentences depending on the quantity of drugs trafficked, or the severity of the crime, such as their position within the drug trafficking network and hierarchy. This would mean that individual’s punishment is equivalent to their crime, which promotes a fairer system of crime and punishment.
Although Singapore is a long way from easing their drug laws, it is important to look at the benefits of decriminalizing certain drugs and introducing community-based approaches to drug law. There is a global trend of decriminalizing drugs, opting for harm reduction, and reducing the criminalization of those who take drugs or are caught up in trafficking. There is tangible evidence of this approach being beneficial to states and their citizens all around the world. Various forms of decriminalization have been adopted by 30 countries, with the most prominent examples being in Portugal, Czech Republic, Germany, and Argentina. Benefits include lower HIV/AIDS rates, less overcrowding in prisons, fewer preventable deaths, and the creation of safer societies for citizens.
Decriminalization does not mean legalization. With the Singapore government justifying their tough drug penalties with wanting to protect citizens, improve public health, reduce diseases, and keep crime rates low, some method of decriminalization could be a way to tackle drug taking and trafficking, whilst upholding human rights and international law.
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