By Terance Walsh
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
BRUSSELS, Belgium — The European Commission announced a restriction on drugs produced by European manufacturers for use in lethal injection executions. The restriction marks another widening of the gulf between the capital punishment policy of Europe and the United States and further decreases the supply of an already scarce resource.
The newly restricted drug, sodium thiopental, is a sedative that has several uses but is commonly used in administering executions. It can now only be exported from European countries after authorization by national authorities.
The reason for the restriction, according to the European Commission, is to “prevent their use for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
The move was cheered by opponents of the death penalty. “We need to see a broad, catch-all provision to prevent any drugs from being used in capital punishment in order to ensure Europe is never again complicit in the death penalty,” Anti-death penalty group Reprieve’s director, Clare Algar, said.
The restriction expressly forbids the sale of the drug to countries that currently practice the death penalty. It is consistent with the unconditional opposition to the death penalty expressed in the European Charter: “[T]he European Union opposes the death penalty under all circumstances. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union states that no one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed. In this regard, the decision today contributes to the wider EU efforts to abolish the death penalty worldwide.”
The impact of the regulation is yet to be known in countries that practice the death penalty. States like Ohio, Texas, and Georgia that execute people relatively frequently have taken to using alternative drugs and looking to other countries overseas to meet its demand. Switching to the use of alternative drugs, however, places a burden on states that want to perform lethal injections by complicating the process of obtaining the drugs and possibly opening legal challenges.
Tuesday’s announcement is the latest in a string of efforts to reduce the supply of drugs used for executions. In April Great Britain announced a ban on exportation to the United States of three drugs used for lethal injections and an Indian pharmaceutical manufacturer that supplied sodium thiopental to Nebraska announced it would cease supplying the drug to American prison officials. In July a Danish manufacturer attempted to quell the sale of its drug for executions by making its distributors promise they would not use the drug for that purpose.
Many American prisons have stockpiled execution drugs over the past year in anticipation of restrictions, but Europe’s new regulation will make it more difficult for prisons to replenish supplies in the future. It is also difficult for regulators to promise that the drugs will not be sold to prison through the back door. In order to prevent manufacturers from circumventing the regulations, the European Council has retained the power to add other drugs to the ban as it sees fit.
The United Kingdom’s business secretary Vince Cabel supports the new restriction. “We have led the way by introducing national controls on the export to the United States of certain drugs, which could be used for the purpose of lethal injection. However we have always stated our clear preference for action at EU level and I am pleased that, following our initiative, these steps are now being taken.”
In the United States lethal injections have become the predominant method of executions in recent years. Earlier this year President Barak Obama made a direct appeal to Germany to supply the drugs, to which German Vice Chancellor Philipp Rosler responded, “I noted the request and declined.”
The death penalty is entirely banned in the European Union and since 2007 the EU has called for a worldwide halt on the death penalty.
For more information please see:
ACLU — Europe Won’t Supply Execution Cocktail To U.S. — 21 December 2011
New York Times — European Union Tightens Exports Of Drugs Used In Executions — 20 December 2011
The Guardian — Europe Moves To Block Trade In Medical Drugs Used In U.S. Executions — 20 December 2011
The Olympian — European Union Restricts Sale Of Execution Drugs — 20 December 2011
Washington Post — European Union Restricts Sale Of Lethal Injection Drugs To U.S., Tightening Scarce Supply — 20 December 2011