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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