Drugs, the Death Penalty and a Cautionary Tale for Governments

The harrowing struggle to spare a young Australian named Scott Rush from the firing squad in Indonesia appears to be over. But now Rush’s own government should confront its role in the case to avoid exposing people to similar dangers in the future.
Patrick Gallahue
1 June 2011

The harrowing struggle to spare a young Australian named Scott Rush from the firing squad in Indonesia appears to be over.  But now Rush’s own government should confront its role in the case to avoid exposing people to similar dangers in the future. 

On Tuesday 17th May, an Indonesian court took Rush – who had been arrested for a drug-related offence at just 19-years-old – off death row after literally spending years under the gun. 

Though it shouldn’t minimise the Australian government’s work on Rush’s behalf -- it has been well reported how cooperation between the Australian Federal Police and Indonesian authorities landed the young man on death row in the first place. Following a tip in Australia that Rush may be acting as a drug courier, the AFP opted to let the then-teenager carry out the plot and catch him with Indonesia’s anti-narcotics forces abroad, according to published reports. 

Rush was eventually put on death row and the rest is history.  

Since then, The Australian newspaper reported that the Home Affairs Minster instructed the AFP “to consider the impact its investigations have on Australian citizens when working with countries that apply the death penalty.” 

Given that about half of the people on Indonesia’s death row are there for drugs and the vast majority of those are foreigners, the directive has a particular urgency. 

Yet the suggestion is also imbalanced. The national origins of the perpetrator shouldn’t matter. Governments that oppose the death penalty have a duty not to facilitate its imposition against anyone from anywhere. This is all the more vital when it comes to drug control since law enforcement agencies around the world cooperate in counter-narcotics activities – including in countries that retain the death penalty for drug-related offences.

This is a direct concern for human rights. 

An international human rights treaty titled ‘The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)’ expressly protects the right to life and specifies in Article 6(2) that capital punishment must be reserved for what the treaty terms ‘most serious crimes.’ United Nations human rights bodies and legal scholars have repeatedly asserted that drug offences do not meet this standard – making such executions a violation of international human rights law. 

Australia is a party to this treaty and has usually been an outspoken opponent of capital punishment. Yet at the same time the AFP is a leader in the international fight against drugs, and some of its critical partners include countries where the death penalty is imposed for drugs.  

And this cooperation has had disastrous results. 

According to an issue of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s newsletter, the AFP worked “closely together” with Myanmar authorities in 2001 to apprehend suspected drug traffickers Twan Sin Htan and Aik Tun.  Local media subsequently reported that both had been sentenced to death by Myanmar courts.

The Australian government is not alone. Counter-narcotics cooperation occurs across an extraordinary range of borders, legal systems and practices. However, countries that oppose the death penalty and take their treaty obligations seriously have a duty to ensure that they are not complicit in these human rights violations

As the case of Scott Rush demonstrates, this national obligation is felt more intensely when its own citizen’s life is at stake. Yet it doesn’t end there. 

Australia should reconsider how it will work with other countries in certain law enforcement activities. The government should continue working with partners to push for the abolition of the death penalty. Barring that, it should consider the impacts that law enforcement cooperation may have before these impacts are felt. 

Scott Rush is a cautionary tale for policy-makers. They must heed it lessons.


--Patrick Gallahue is a human rights analyst with Harm Reduction International and the co-author of the reports, ‘The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2010’ and ‘Complicity or Abolition? The Death Penalty and International Support for Drug Enforcement.’



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