We need to stop more than lethal injection drugs being exported from the UK

Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International UK Arms Programme Director, outlines the issues sorrunding UK export of fluids for lethal injections and the action the government should take.

Today, the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty will hear evidence from the mother and brother of Brandon Rhode, who was executed in the US state of Georgia in September last year with drugs imported from the UK; here, Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International UK Arms Programme Director, outlines the issues surrounding UK export of fluids for lethal injections and the action the government should take

For many years Amnesty International has warned that lethal injection executions in the United States and elsewhere have been causing excruciating pain and extreme mental suffering to the condemned prisoner right up to the moment of their death.

Here’s why. The lethal injection generally involves the intravenous introduction of three chemicals into the body:

(1). Sodium thiopental (also know by the trade name Pentothal), which induces general anaesthesia;

(2). Pancuronium bromide, which causes muscle paralysis, and hence respiratory failure; and

(3). Potassium chloride, which leads to cardiac arrest.

If the anaesthetic is inadequate or causes an unexpected reaction, the pain caused by potassium chloride in the blood system and subsequent heart attack could be intense, while paralysis may mean the victim is unable to even cry out, horrifically and agonisingly trapped in a “chemical straitjacket”.

Amnesty is categorically opposed to capital punishment in all circumstances and by whatever method. But it’s important to note that contrary to the notion that killing by lethal injection (as opposed to hanging or the electric chair) provides a “clean” or “pain-free” way of executing prisoners, the evidence actually points the opposite way.

Now a sudden shortage of sodium thiopental in the US has thrown up a macabre situation where individual states appear to be hunting around for fresh supplies. Last autumn it emerged a UK company based in Reading may have manufactured the sodium thiopental used in the execution of a prisoner in Arizona. Since then there have been further alarming reports that a west London company has been supplying the drug to US buyers.

In November Amnesty wrote to the business secretary Vince Cable alerting him to the UK’s obligations (under EC Regulation 1235/2005) to prevent the export from the UK of goods involved in capital punishment or torture. Moreover the UK has a policy commitment to oppose capital punishment globally and to press for its abolition.

Under pressure from campaigners, the government then announced it would introduce export controls on sodium thiopental itself, a welcome but extremely limited move that fails to address a fatal flaw with the UK’s export controls regime. Naming the drugs themselves is a welcome step, but it’s not enough; what’s required is a set of controls operating according to the likely end-use of the goods concerned and a rule that stops the export of any drugs or equipment where the supplier knows or has been told of its likely use in executions.

This is what the government promised to introduce within the EU more than two years ago, but no progress has been made.

It’s no use stopping sodium thiopental leaving these shores if next week a different UK-manufactured lethal injection drug is found to be in shipments bound for the USA, China or any other country where they’re fastening people into chemical straitjackets as they put them to death.

• Read more on EU loopholes and torture equipment here.

14 Responses to “We need to stop more than lethal injection drugs being exported from the UK”

  1. lewsosnhs

    RT @leftfootfwd: We need to stop more than lethal injection drugs being exported from the UK: //bit.ly/gjQU7P writes @OllySprague

  2. Tacitus

    There is something inherently repugnant about a society that is committed to the abolition of the death penalty can turn a blind eye to a system that ballows it to supply other states the materials to do what it deplores.

    Once again the UK has a set of double standards – at least we are consistent in one area.

  3. 13eastie

    Presumably you are aware that sodium thiopental is own the World Health Organisation’s “Essential Medicines List”?

    As is potassium chloride.

    You did realise this before you suggested we start speculating as to their “likely end use”?

    (See for yourself //is.gd/ssll4S).

    Perhaps you’d like to suggest a black-list of all the countries to which Vince Cable should ban the export of safe, high-quality medicines, based on hearsay regarding their judicial systems?

    Of course, it’s not just pharmaceutical products that can be used in the administration of capital punishment or torture.

    Can we be sure that nobody in Iran has been hanged using a British-built JCB?

    And that no-one in Guantanamo has been water-boarded using Buxton Spring Water?

  4. Amnesty UK media

    RT @leftfootfwd: We need to stop more than lethal injection drugs being exported from the UK //bit.ly/icP8sq

  5. La Operacar

    RT @NewsFromAmnesty: RT @leftfootfwd: We need to stop more than lethal injection drugs being exported from the UK //bit.ly/icP8sq

  6. Neil Durkin

    Amnesty's Oliver Sprague: We need to stop more than lethal injection drugs being exported from the UK //bit.ly/icP8sq

  7. Sweets And Sugar

    RT @NewsFromAmnesty: RT @leftfootfwd: We need to stop more than lethal injection drugs being exported from the UK //bit.ly/icP8sq

  8. Mr. Sensible

    Oliver, I read about the case of Mr Rhode in the Guardian yesterday, and found it quite moving.

    I, like you, am opposed to capital punishment in all forms and all situations, and would not want any british exports to be used for such a purpose.

    I think 13eastie makes an important point, though, in that Sodium thiopental is also used for medical purposes, presumably for anaesthetic during surgical procedures.

    13eastie I think what Oliver is saying (feel free to correct me), is that manufacturers can get a reasonable idea of how their product is going to be used, and so this should be stopped.

    In which case, this is something I fully support, and I fully back Amnesty’s campaign.

  9. Oliver Sprague

    Hi. yes I and amnesty is fully aware of the dual-use nature of these drugs and the fact that they do have medical applications. Adding them to an export control list does not ban them in all circumstances, it only requires that a licence is needed to export them. For use in essential medical use, the shipments would be authorised, only banned where they are going to be used in capital punlishment or other acts of torture or cruel and degrading treatment.

  10. Mr. Sensible

    Thanks for the clarrification, Oliver.

    Good luck with the campaign.

  11. rech

    I work in an operating theatre and can assure you that one or two of our essential medicines are ALWAYS missing due to supply problems. I’m not in favour of the death penalty but if it your own relative dying from lack of potassium, or if you need an anaesthetic and are allergic to the alternatives to thiopental, the “licence requirements” or whatever are going to be a disaster.
    Can I just point out that there is no medical justification for the current “lethal injection” regime, there are any number of drugs that can clumsily kill a patient if thiopental is off the list.

  12. Oliver Sprague

    It should not effect in any way, supplies of drugs for essential medical needs. The end-use licensing clause only relates to instances where the exporter has been told or knows about the end-use of the product. There are various types of export license already available that allow flexibility into the system.

  13. Mr. Sensible

    Oliver, please keep this blog informed as to how the parliamentary inquiry and your campaign go.

  14. Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs | Left Foot Forward

    […] I wrote on this blog recently, lethal injection executions are grisly affairs, involving strapping prisoners down, and, in a […]

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