Calling for a halt to Sri Lanka’s plans on resuming the death penalty, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) yesterday said that the country’s move to lift the 43-year moratorium on executions a major setback for human rights.
The statement came in response to President Maithripala Sirisena’s announcement on Wednesday that he had ordered the execution of four drug offenders, claiming it would end increasing addiction problems in the country.
“Sri Lanka has been a bulwark against capital punishment in Asia for more than four decades, yet now the Sirisena government wants to throw in its lot with less rights-respecting regimes,” the HRW said.
The ongoing moratorium has been in effect since 1976, and currently, there are 1,299 prisoners – 1,215 men and 84 women –on death row, having been convicted for capital offences. Up to 48 of these were convicted for drug crimes.
President Sirisena said he was determined to crack down on drug trafficking after over 300,000 people in Sri Lanka allegedly became addicts, with 60 per cent of 24,000 prison inmates incarcerated for drug-related offences.
In its statement, the international human rights group noted that the United Nations General Assembly has continually called on countries to establish a moratorium on the death penalty, progressively restrict the practice, and reduce the offences for which it might be imposed – all with a view toward its eventual abolition.
Where the death penalty is permitted, the HRW said, international human rights law limits the death penalty to “the most serious crimes,” typically crimes resulting in death or serious bodily harm.
“In the report on March 2010, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime called for an end to the death penalty and specifically urged member countries to prohibit the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences, while urging countries to take an overall human rights-based approach to drug and crime control,” the statement added.
The HRW went on to say that, in its 2014 annual report, the International Narcotics Control Board, the agency charged with monitoring compliance with UN drug control conventions, encouraged countries to abolish the death penalty for drug offences.
The UN Human Rights Committee, noted the HRW in its statement, and the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions have concluded that the death penalty for drug offences fails to meet the condition of “most serious crime.”
In September 2015, the UN high commissioner for human rights reaffirmed that “persons convicted of drug-related offences … should not be subject to the death penalty.”
“The death penalty is a cruel practice that has no place in modern society for combating drug crimes or any other offence and Sri Lanka should work toward upholding its human rights pledges and immediately rescind the execution orders,” the statement said.