The countries with the world's deadliest drug laws have been on full display — literally — this week during the UN's annual narcotics meeting in Vienna.
Several nations that routinely execute drug offenders have set up stalls in a large, circular hall that delegates convening for the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs must pass through in order to attend the proceedings.
The contents of the stalls range from photo installations that depict the burning of dope hauls to tables with portable speakers plastered with anti-drug themed messages. There's also a giant tent in the middle of the room, where guests can sip coffee while they discuss the importance of killing drug traffickers.
Iran, which recently notified more than 100 drug offenders of their impending executions, is among the countries that received space in the hall. The UN estimates that the Islamic Republic executed more than 950 people last year, with most of the death sentences handed down for drug crimes.
Iran's stall is predominantly devoted to its harm reduction methods, and there is no mention of the death penalty. One chart said more than 420,000 Iranians received methadone maintenance treatment last year. Another 76,000 reportedly received buprenorphine treatment, and nearly 40,000 underwent outpatient detoxification. Iran has one of the highest incidences of drug abuse in the world, mostly tied to heroin and opium. Advocates say the country's therapeutic options are progressive for the region, but lament the politically motivated slaughter of hundreds of drug criminals, who are often impoverished and have little or no legal recourse.
Manning the Iranian booth this week was Farhad Jalali, an official at a government-run agency that works with drug addicts and prisoners. He conceded that some of the executed drug offenders shouldn't have been put to death. "In Iran, in reality, it's related to politics," he lamented, adding that the executions distract the international community from Iran's recovery programs.
The UN has long funded anti-narcotics efforts in the country, most recently inking a $20 million deal. But member states are now hesitant to deliver that cash, lest they be associated with Tehran's gallows.
Looking across the hall, Jalali gestured to the ubiquitous tent in the center, raised by the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including Saudi Arabia — Iran's nemesis in the region. Nearby, green placards boasted of impressive Saudi hauls of Captagon, an amphetamine that is the Middle East's upper drug of choice. "In Saudi they have the same law," Jalali pointed out, adding that, overall, Iran's drug policies are far superior because Gulf states aren't invested in harm reduction.
Inside the GCC tent, Saeed Musleh, an official at the council's Criminal Information Center to Combat Drugs in Doha, was seated on a plush couch. As guests entered, he inquired about the succulent dates that were set out on a table. Coffee was poured and Musleh, a Bahraini national, broke into a defense of capital punishment. "If you take this away from the law, who wins?" he asked rhetorically. "Drug dealers win!"
"If we put them in jail we will spend all this money for him [the drug dealer]," said Musleh, as a staffer from the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) looked on. (The UNODC sells the GCC software to track crimes.) "They kill our young people," he said.
Besides the tent, the largest installation belonged to Singapore, which spent part of its speech before member states this week railing against harm reduction. Cheerful officials there offered guests cardboard speakers emblazoned with the motto "Say no to drugs." Also among the anti-narcotic spread was a set of six postcards. They appeared playful at first, decorated with anthropomorphic creatures and accompanied by short poems. "Fiona the Chameleon could change her colours anywhere she went," began one. "But once started on 'ice' her colourful life was spent," it ends, in a startling reference to meth.
Other animals had similar fates. Kenny the Kangaroo's "mummy" told him "cannabis is very bad." But, somewhat predictably, "Kenny didn't listen to her. And now he's gone quite mad." Nash the cat flushed his life down the toilet by smoking weed, while JoAnn the Hen, like Fiona, fell victim to meth. Mark the Rabbit and Rick the rat couldn't kick their habits, and the police, somewhat ominously, "took that rat away." A nearby TV screen played dramatic portrayals of a teenage girl arguing with her parents, slamming the door to her room, and turning to drugs moments later.
Singapore has some of the world's strictest narcotics laws, and a long history of putting drug offenders to death, though in recent years it somewhat weakened mandatory capital punishment for certain offenses. Francisco Junior Rockey, an official at the country's Ministry of Home Affairs, said that the death penalty was "part of a larger approach." Their campaign includes movie star Jackie Chan, who is now an anti-drug ambassador following his son's detention in China for possession.
Thailand and Pakistan, both of which execute people for drug crimes, also had installations. The only non-drug war focused stall was that of Peru, which instead put out a spread of chocolates, coffee, and other locally-sourced products, which it portrayed as the result of aternative development away from coca production.
Russia had one of the more unassuming and unimpressive set-ups. For the last three days, its array of boilerplate drug war photographs has sat unattended. Russian officials, however, have spent that time elsewhere, inside closed door negotiations, where they are, in the words of one delegate, "blocking everything."
The delegate was referring to talks, meant to conclude this week, on an outcome document that the General Assembly is expected to endorse next month at a special session on drugs (UNGASS). It's the first such meeting since 1988, and reformists hope it will herald the end of the war on drugs. Advocates have pushed for the document, which will shape global drug policy for years to come, to include references to harm reduction, decriminalization, and an acknowledgement of the drug war's failure.
Those hopes have been dealt a blow in Vienna. Earlier this week, nearly 200 civil society groups called the secretive process "perilously close to representing a serious systemic failure of the UN system." Ask any delegate and they'll quietly finger one country for the lack of progress: Russia.
Having assumed the mantle of international drug warrior, the Russians are now trolling the rest of the world and maintaining staunch opposition to what many countries consider inoffensive language. They have outright refused to allow the words "harm reduction" into the text, and, as of Tuesday evening, were blocking inclusion of reference to Naloxone, a drug that quickly counteracts opioid overdoses, and has been widely endorsed in the US. The much-lauded "spirit" of Vienna — its consensus process — means that Russia and just a few allies, while isolated, may very well get what they want.
Photos in the Russian stall showed a room with marijuana plants, and soldiers in assault gear shielding behind a pickup. Other images documented handshakes between the Russian head of UNODC and similarly hardline world leaders. Still others showed cops prying open of a block of an unknown illicit substance, and there was, of course, drug seizures going up in flames. Though Russia and the Gulf states are at loggerheads in Syria, one diplomat noted that they all seemed to find common ground on draconian drug laws.
The Russians and Gulf states also agree, according to those involved in negotiations, that a reference to the death penalty has no place in the UNGASS outcome draft. On Tuesday, the top US international drug official, William Brownfield, made clear that the Americans wouldn't push back on the use of the death penalty for drug offenders, and even startled activists when he said harm reduction had become a "backhanded way to describe legalization." Asked about the state of the closed room talks, one Western delegate said it looked increasingly like member states in Vienna would agree on "the same old same old."
Though many reformists chuckled at Singapore's postcards and Moscow's lazy installation, the stalls were a sober reminder of what was going in private just a few steps away.
The installations, said Edward Fox, policy officer at the UK advocacy group Release, are "a sad indication of who some of the loudest voices are in the UN drug policy processes."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford