IN THE early hours of April 29th, Indonesia executed eight convicted drug traffickers. Seven of the eight were foreigners: two Australians, a Brazilian, a Filipina and four Nigerians. The sentences have provoked outrage from the prisoners’ home countries, none of which hands down the death penalty to drug offenders. Brazil and the Netherlands had already withdrawn their ambassadors, following an earlier round of executions in January. Indonesia is rare in executing drug smugglers, who in most of the world are condemned only to long stretches in prison. Where else does trafficking earn a death sentence?
Thirty-two countries, plus Gaza, have the death penalty for drug smuggling, according to Harm Reduction International (HRI), a drug-focused NGO. All but four (America, Cuba, Sudan and South Sudan) are in Asia or the Middle East. But in most of them executions are extremely rare.
Fourteen, including America and Cuba, have the death penalty on the books for drug traffickers but do not apply it in practice. Only in six countries—China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore—are drug offenders known to be routinely executed, according to HRI’s most recent analysis. (Indonesia will soon join this list, following its recent executions.) In Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria the data are murky.
Executions of drug smugglers are becoming more common. Between 1999 and 2014 Indonesia carried out only seven executions of drug traffickers, according to a tally by Australian media. Since taking office six months ago, President Joko Widodo has overseen 14, as part of a fight against drug addiction at home. (Never mind that some of the recently killed prisoners were smuggling drugs out of Indonesia, rather than into it.) An even greater escalation has taken place in Iran, which executed fewer than 100 drug smugglers in 2008 but has put to death 241 in only the first four months of this year, according to Amnesty International. Possession of just 30g of some synthetic drugs can mean hanging in Iran. China is thought to execute more drug offenders than any other country. It does not publish statistics on its use of the death penalty, but in the first five months of 2014 drug convictions were 27% higher than in the same period a year earlier. Human rights advocates now worry about Pakistan, which earlier this year ended a moratorium on the death penalty. It has 8,000 people on death row, including an unknown number of drug traffickers.
Asia’s toughening approach contrasts with a slackening off in the West. Trading cannabis, which earns beheading in Saudi Arabia, has been legalised for recreational use in four states of America, as well as in Uruguay, and decriminalised in much of Europe and Latin America. Heroin addiction is increasingly treated as an illness rather than a crime: clean needles are available in many rich countries, and a few, including Britain and Switzerland, even prescribe heroin to a small number of addicts. In most areas of social policy, such different regional policies would not matter much. But in the case of drugs, a relentlessly globalising business, the sharply diverging approaches will lead to more uncomfortable stand-offs between East and West.