Australian citizen, Pham Trung Dung, has been sentenced to death by a court in Vietnam – a nation with one of the harshest drug laws in the world – for attempting to smuggle heroin out of the country. The sentence came just one day after Yury Fedotov, the executive director of the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), urged the Vietnamese government to further tackle “the manufacture, trafficking, and abuse” of certain drugs. The Southeast Asian state, a primary location on the route of the region’s drug traffickers, currently has more than 700 convicts awaiting execution, and has handed down the death penalty to over 30 drug smugglers in the past six months.
During yesterday’s trial in Ho Chi Minh City, Mr Dung, 37, told the court that he had been assured a payment of $40,000 if he had brought the 4kg (8.8lb) haul back to Australia. He was caught by customs officials at Tan Son Nhat Airport in May last year, as he attempted to board a flight with the narcotics concealed in two bags. Vietnamese law outlines a mandatory sentence of either life imprisonment or capital punishment for anyone found in possession of more than 600g (1.3lb) of heroin.
Vietnam sits beside one of the world’s primary hubs for illicit opium production – the Golden Triangle; a cross-border region that encompasses parts of Thailand, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar). Vietnam’s location – on the eastern-most point of the Southeast Asian peninsular – makes the country a strategic transit point for illegal drugs from Asia to Australasia. Traffickers can be confident that there is a desire for their exported products – be it cannabis, opium, or amphetamines – as Australia and New Zealand are, according to the UN, the world’s top recreational drug consumers. Punishments for drug offences in these nations are relatively lenient, particularly regarding possession, and the death penalty has been abolished.
This disparity is a common theme in the War on Drugs; individuals in drug-producing regions, such as Latin America, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia, endure harsher repercussions of the drug war than individuals in the primary drug-consuming regions, such as North America, Europe, and Australasia. The injustice of this is particularly poignant because the United Nations, with European and American funding, is the primary international supporter of Vietnamese drug policy.
Despite the Vietnamese government admitting over a decade ago that “the death penalty has been mostly given to persons engaged in drug trafficking”, the UN – which ostensibly opposes capital punishment – continues to provide the country with millions of dollars each year for ‘drug enforcement support’. After the sentencing of 21 men and 9 women to death for drug offences in January, Vietnam has come under increased scrutiny, and international charities are aptly turning on the UN for tacitly allowing the continuation of this continued human rights abuse. A group of three charities – Harm Reduction International, Reprieve, and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty – have called on the UNODC to cease providing support that “may facilitate executions”, and to contribute funding to health services rather than law enforcement if Vietnam refuses to end its death penalty practice. However, the fact that Mr Dung’s sentencing occurred 24 hours after the UNODC expressed support for Vietnam intensifying their War on Drugs, suggests that the United Nations is simply adding fuel to the fire.