United Nations Should Fund Anti-Drug Trafficking Efforts in Iran

By Kristen E. McCannon

The United Nations announced on March 18 that the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime would move forward on a plan to fund an anti-drug trafficking program in Iran, despite objections from some human rights observers. The plan would provide millions of dollars to Iran’s counter-narcotics trafficking program, which pursues the death penalty for some convicted drug offenders.

Almost half of the 753 prisoners that were executed in Iran last year were executed for drug-related offenses. Drug executions in Iran are increasing. The rate of execution for drugs offenses has quadrupled over the previous three years, to an average of roughly five hundred executions per year.

Many Western human rights organizations, particularly those in Europe, have opposed the United Nations plan to support Iran’s anti-trafficking program. Maya Foa, an anti-death penalty campaigner for Reprieve, noted “A lion’s share of this funding is set to come from European governments, who…condemn the death penalty while funding drug raids where those caught are hanged from cranes in public.” A number of governments, including Britain and Denmark, have recognized the moral implications and have publically withdrawn their support for the plan. 

Non-European organizations have more forcefully stood against the plan. Amnesty International has publically criticized the death penalty for drug offenders in Iran. Human Rights Watch has also called for the United Nations’ funding program to end.  According to Faraz Sanei, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, “the UNODC should publicly criticize Iran’s flagrant and continuing violation of international law.”

For all these criticisms, Iran is recognized as the key in the fight against opium trafficking. The Iranian government seized 72% of all the opium seized in the world in 2012, or about 388 tons. In addition, Iran shares a border with Afghanistan, which produces 90% of the world’s opium. The United Nations would have difficulty combatting the illegal opium trade without the cooperation of Iran. “This is an extremely complex issue,” said one U.N. staffer, “in which you have to confront the demand and supply side.”

Ultimately, the United Nations should not abandon the plan to fund anti-drug trafficking efforts in Iran. Although Iran has a high rate of executions, none of the U.N. funding directly supports capital punishment. Furthermore, Iran is an important strategic partner to the U.N. in the fight against opium trafficking. The risks of failure of anti-trafficking operations in Iran outweigh the moral implications of the funding program.