Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs

Vince Cable is to announce a ban within days on the export from the UK of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride lethal injection execution drugs.

Oliver Sprague is the Arms Programme Director of Amnesty International UK

He might not agree with the prime minister on the inward movement of people to the United Kingdom, but business secretary Vince Cable is apparently on the same page as Mr Cameron on the need to prevent pharmaceutical drugs being exported to countries that use them to execute people.

Mr Cable’s announcement of a ban within days on the export from the UK of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride is welcome news.

As I wrote on this blog recently, lethal injection executions are grisly affairs, involving strapping prisoners down, and, in a quasi -medical procedure, inserting into the body a cocktail of three drugs that anaesthetise, paralyse and then poison the prone person.

They sometimes misfire. If the anaesthetic fails prisoners experience intense pain as the potassium chloride courses through their bloodstream. Indeed they may experience the agony of an induced heart attack paralysed by the pancuronium bromide and therefore unable to cry out.

To add to this, there have been horribly botched executions, where the execution chamber officials’ struggle to find a usable vein for the injection catheter has gone on and on (for two hours in one case), with the prisoner looking on, a bizarre witness to his own execution.

But merely shutting off the supply of three named drugs from one country (the UK) is an inadequate response. And Vince Cable knows this. Last year we wrote to the business secretary reminding him of the UK’s obligations (under EC Regulation 1235/2005) to prevent the export from the UK of all goods involved in capital punishment or torture.

Banning three specific drugs is not enough. If next week another pharma company pops up with a substitute drug and starts shipping it to death penalty states in the USA, they would get around the ban at a stroke.

Meanwhile, Mr Cable is urging other European countries to follow suit. This is the right approach (indeed there are already reports of a Danish company supplying a replacement for sodium thiopental through a Kansas subsidiary). Like junkies looking for a fix, US state authorities have been looking around the world for alternative supply sources after sodium thiopental ran short in the US last year.

Without international controls, death penalty countries will find it all too easy to get their capital punishment equipment on the international market.

So my urgent message to Mr Cable is simple: instead of relying on the three-drug ban establish a clear set of controls (in the UK and further afield) that assess the likely end-use of the goods concerned. One clear control factor would be whether the items in question (drugs, restraint equipment, etc) are likely to be used to carry out executions. Indeed this is actually what the government said it would push for within the EU more than two years ago, yet nothing has been done.

Amnesty recently reported that there were more than 500 state executions in the world last year (indeed this is only the “official” figure, most killings take place in secret and the true figure will have run into the thousands) and a large proportion of them were carried out by lethal injection. To its credit the UK’s policy commitment is to oppose capital punishment globally and to press for its abolition. Why then is it so slipshod over regulating lethal exports?

• Read more on EU loopholes and torture equipment here.

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17 Responses to “Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs”

  1. jbw

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs: http://bit.ly/fHUvit from @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  2. Trakgalvis

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs: http://bit.ly/fHUvit from @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  3. Pucci Dellanno

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs: http://bit.ly/fHUvit from @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  4. L DTUC

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs: http://bit.ly/fHUvit from @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  5. Neil Durkin

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs: http://bit.ly/fHUvit from @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  6. Daniel Pitt

    Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs http://bit.ly/fHUvit #ConDemNation

  7. Mary Stokes

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs: http://bit.ly/fHUvit from @AmnestyUK's @OllySprague

  8. 13eastie

    This argument is simply fatuous, and based on ignorance. Sprague is simply barking up the wrong tree.

    SODIUM THIOPENTAL – This is an inducer of general anaesthesia. It features on the WHO list of Essential Medicines, and is widely used outside the UK (here it has been largely replaced with Propofol, as used in the “execution” of Michael Jackson). Its rapid onset, deep coma, and long half-life have made it the choice of induction agent, among patients and doctors alike, on the Continent for humane “assisted dying” in European countries where it is legal.

    PANCURONIUM BROMIDE – A skeletal muscle-relaxant used therapeutically world-wide. Again, this agent is favoured by proponents of assisted dying.

    POTASSIUM CHLORIDE – Another staple of the WHO Essential Medicines List and used on every hospital ward in the UK to prevent life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia. There is too much of this very basic ionic compound in the sea to count, and the US has 12,000 miles of coast-line.

    These three drugs have enabled millions of lives to be saved. To call them “execution drugs” is infantile and hysterical.

    THEY ARE “EXECUTION DRUGS” ONLY TO THE EXTENT THAT THOMAS CHIPPENDALE EXPORTED FURNITURE WITH THE POTENTIAL FOR FUTURE ELECTRIFICATION.

    The alternative methods of execution on offer in the US (hanging; firing-squad; gas-chamber; electric chair) are far more barbaric (violent; protracted; painful) in their theory and practice than lethal injection, which, in fact, has much in common with the modern concept of voluntary euthanasia (for the record, I oppose BOTH fundamentally).

    “Doctor” Vince Cable’s stand is ignorant, cowardly and pathetic: it is a cheap sound-bite to appeal to Liberals; it has no scientific or medical merit; it will likely benefit no-one; it may well increase the suffering of prisoners on death row (including the on-going case of Romell Broom that the writer cites) and possibly patients elsewhere.

    Cable is a man whose principles are so strong that he censures the same UK businesses he is employed to promote rather than tackle barbarous governments elsewhere.

  9. Mr. Sensible

    13eastie, I understand where you’re coming from, however as both myself and Oliver said when we were having this discussion in February, no one is denying the medical use of these medicines.

    You can, however, gain an idea of what such substances are likely to be used for.

    And the idea that execution by lethal injection is more humane than other methods is questionable, especially if, as Oliver points out, the anaesthesia is boched or they struggle to find a useable vein.

    What Oliver is saying is that the likely end use of not just these drugs but other drugs and equipment must be assessed, and if there is a likelyhood of use in capital punishment cases in the USA or elsewhere there should be controls in Britain and throughout the EU.

    The clearest possible message should go out that Britain and Europe do not condone capital punishment in any form and in any situation.

  10. Mr. Sensible

    Although this is a small step, a step it is and Vince Cable and the government should be commended for it.

  11. Medicines

    Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs | Left …: But merely shutting off the supply of thr… http://bit.ly/fLRnJc

  12. CJA

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs http://bit.ly/f3yyAa

  13. Oliver Sprague

    see my reply to comments & join the debate RT @leftfootfwd: Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs http://bit.ly/f3yyAa

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  15. Oliver Sprague

    I think you should always be careful when using words like “ignorant” an “fatuous”in debate. We are talking about bringing certain things within the remit of export licensing so that legitimate trade is permitted and protected but where there is a clear and substantial risk that the goods in question (in this case drugs) will be used in capital punishment, torture or other cruel and degrading treatment, the government has the power to stop it. This is merely about bringing aspects of our trade policy in line with our existing commitments to prohibit certain activities and stop us knowingly facilitating them. Yes it is a very very welcome step that Mr Cable has acted on this issue, he is sending a clear statement to the rest of his EU counterparts that its outrageous that the EU is so complacent. We should praise him, and I do so, but we should also remember that this was done after evidence emerged of a UK company supplying these drugs, which isn’t going to help those at risk from now being executed by UK supplied drugs. It also is limited in scope and falls short of what existing government commitments are in this area, which is to work on a new “end-use clause” that makes any goods subject to control where the exporter knows or has been informed about if the items in question are to facilitate capital punishment, torture or other cruel and degrading treatment.

  16. chang mei wan

    RT @trakgalvis: RT @leftfootfwd: Lethal exports: Urgent message to Cable on execution drugs: http://bit.ly/fHUvit from @AmnestyUK's @Oll …

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