The Frenchman Felix Dorfin is the latest of many drug traffickers sentenced to death in Indonesia under the country’s harsh laws on drug trafficking offences. Indonesia is not alone. With a few notable exceptions, Asia has the harshest approaches globally to combatting illicit drug trafficking, exacerbated by extrajudicial killings, compulsory detention for people who use drugs, and in some cases corporal punishment meted out by caning.
The question one would ask is: “Have these uncompromising lethal measures achieved the stated goal of reducing drug demand and supply in the region? Can countries in Asia claim that progress is being made towards the goal of a ‘drug-free’ region?”
The so-called “war on drugs” has persisted for decades without an honest assessment by governments of its effectiveness, nor its impacts, despite UN reports showing ever-increasing drug markets year on year as well as many harmful consequences. In a report on the past decade of drug policy in Asia released recently, the International Drug Policy Consortium presents a comprehensive assessment that portrays a grim reality.
The UN has reported a 167% increase in the production of opium in Afghanistan and a 29% increase in Myanmar since 2009. Seizures of methamphetamine tablets have increased nine-fold from 2008 to 2015. These trends reflect high levels of demand and increasing sophistication by drug traffickers, while demonstrating the utter ineffectiveness of waging costly drug wars that overwhelmingly prioritise the use of law enforcement at the expense of public health and human rights.
Over the past decade, the use of drugs along with its associated health risks and deaths have surged in Asia. The UN reports an almost 100% increase from 2011 to 2018 in the use of amphetamines. The rates of prevalence of HIV, viral hepatitis and tuberculosis amongst people who inject drugs in Asia remain disproportionately high compared with other regions of the world and have seen no overall decrease since 2009. Although the reported number of drug-related deaths has fallen from 104,116 in 2011 to 66,100 in 2016, it is important to note that data on drug-related mortality remains scarce and of poor quality, with no systematic reporting of overdose deaths in any country in the region.
Many others have died from targeted killings including during law enforcement operations, numbering up to 20,000 in the Philippines alone since Duterte’s declaration of a war on people who use drugs and trafficking in 2016.
Although on a lesser scale, the numbers of people killed in drug enforcement operations have also sharply risen in Indonesia (99 people in 2017, an alarming increase from 16 such deaths in 2016), as well as in Bangladesh (over 400 people killed since May 2018). In addition, almost half of the countries worldwide that retain the death penalty for drug offences are in Asia (16 out of 33 countries), and in addition Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines are taking steps to re-institute or expand its use.
If people are not killed for engaging in drug-related activities, many of them are locked up in overcrowded prisons, detention facilities and so-called “drug rehabilitation centres”. Where data is available, it shows that many people in prisons are held for non-violent drug offences according to available data, for example in Indonesia (58%), Thailand (72%) and the Philippines (58%).
This proportion is often greater for women, including in Thailand where over 80% of women in prison are incarcerated for a drug offence. Despite years of Asian government claiming a shift towards a health approach to drug use, over 450,000 people are currently held in compulsory detention centres in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Singapore and Thailand.
As in any war, the impacts of repressive drug policies in Asia are felt far and wide, not only by people who use drugs and people engaged in supply, but also their families and wider community. In particular, the high levels of women imprisoned for drugs has damaging effects on their children and family cohesion. There is a growing recognition that women are exploited in the illicit drug trade as couriers and do so out of economic necessity, desperation or coercion, and are therefore expendable—making it apparent that imprisonment and harsh punishment cannot suppress the driving factors behind ever-expanding drug markets.
In the face of this damning report card on drug policies, it is not surprising that governments are reluctant to openly evaluate whether progress has been made towards regional and global goals of eliminating the illicit drug trade. The truth they must confront is that drug markets have proved impervious to sustained efforts to reduce demand or supply, while the human cost of brutally punitive policies is far greater than any harm from drugs themselves.
Timor-Leste’s Constitution adopted in 2002 prohibits the death penalty. Our society unanimously repudiates the death penalty under any circumstances and in fact Timor-Leste’s law does not even recognize life imprisonment. We believe that life is sacrosanct and in redemption as a possibility for all individuals. Yet 17 years since the restoration of Independence and with this humane approach to punishment, drug trafficking and levels of use by locals remain very low.
This is not because Timor-Leste is a poor country with locals lacking the funds to buy drugs. Our per capita GDP is more than double that of Myanmar and almost double that of Cambodia. In addition, Timor-Leste is one of the most open countries in the world with visa on arrival for any foreigner. And sharing land and maritime borders with two major regional powers, Australia and Indonesia, Timor-Leste should be a magnet for the region’s drug traffickers, one would assume.
Frenchman Felix Dorfin entered Indonesia from Singapore which is as harsh on drug offences as Indonesia and has the capacity to enforce its laws. Evidently, in his case the system failed to stop him nor did the prospect of the death penalty deter him.
It is my firm belief that there are other, more humane and effective ways to significantly reduce drug trafficking and consumption. It is obvious that the fight against powerful, unscrupulous and well-armed criminal cartels engaging in illicit drug trafficking requires effective security approaches.
However, every care must be taken to scrupulously avoid harming innocent people and individual people who use drugs who require specialised care to help them return to a healthy life. Sustained education and dissemination of information in communities and schools on the nefarious consequences of drug use, and legally regulating less harmful drugs like cannabis - as is already being done in some US States, as well as Uruguay and Canada - are the best strategies and less costly: saving both state resources and human lives.