Praising authoritarian regimes’ human rights violations has become routine for President Donald Trump. In particular, he has admired the use of executions for drug-law violations on numerous occasions, hailing them as successes.
Two countries with some of the world’s harshest punishments in the world were identified as potential policy models by Trump at a February 10 White House meeting with a group of state governors. “It’s interesting, we have Singapore, they have very little drug problem. We have China, they have very little drug problem,” Trump said, in response to a question from Texas Governor Greg Abbott about the influx of fentanyl from China. “States with a very powerful death penalty on drug dealers don’t have a drug problem.”
But even the countries that he cites as inspirations for US drug policy have shown signs that the use of the death penalty is not effective in curbing the illicit market.
Drug trafficking seems to be thriving in Singapore, despite recent executions of people prosecuted for selling drugs. “We have seen an increase in the number of people coming in from countries trying to traffic,” said K Shanmugam, the country’s Minister of Law, to Reuters in July 2019. The vast majority of hangings (11 out of 13) in 2018 were for drug offenses—the first time the number was in double digits since 2003, according to Amnesty International, as reported by Reuters.
Singapore was set to ramp up such punishments further. Ten people were on death row for drug-law violations in July 2019—and the state rejected all of their bids for clemency. In November, one of them—a Malaysian citizen—was hung.
The number of executed Chinese could be in the thousands, Amnesty International has estimated, but such data is shrouded in secrecy by the state. People in China, of course, still use drugs. In 2016, more than two million drug users were officially registered with the National Narcotics Control Commission—though that’s likely an undercount. The number of registered users steadily increased over the two decades before that, according to a Brookings Institute report.
In February, a top drug warrior in the Philippines, another regime that Trump has praised, announced that President Duterte’s campaign has failed. Officially, more than 8,000 people have been killed in the drug war, yet a September 2019 investigation by The Atlantic and the Stable Center for Investigative Journalism found that figure to be a “gross underestimation.”
“Shock and awe definitely did not work,” Colonel Romeo Caramat told Reuters. Under his watch in 2017, police in the province north of Manila killed 32 people in 24 hours. But today, “Drug supply is still rampant.”
The numbers of drug trafficking offenses provided by Singapore and China—seemingly believed by Trump to be almost nonexistent—might not accurately represent what’s happening on the ground, one advocate also suggested. “It’s also a myth that there is no crime in authoritarian states, as if they would report it honestly anyway,” tweeted Gary Kasparov, chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, following Trump’s February 10 remarks. “As the joke went, murder and robbery are illegal because the state doesn’t like the competition.”
Trump’s favorable comments about drug-related executions date back at least to the early days of his presidency. Just three months after his inauguration, Trump congratulated Duterte on the “unbelievable job” that his regime was doing against “the drug problem,” according to a private call transcript obtained by The Intercept. Duterte’s bloody drug war is waged through extrajudicial killings of people suspected of using and/or selling drugs, particularly methamphetamine. In the past, the Phillipines president has said that he’d like to “slaughter” people who use and sell drugs just like how “Hitler massacred three million Jews [sic].”
According to a 2018 Axios investigation, Trump “often jokes about killing drug dealers,” one senior administration official reported. “He’ll say, ‘You know the Chinese and Filipinos don’t have a drug problem. They just kill them.'” In spring 2019, the president said that he “appreciates” China’s use of the death penalty for fentanyl trafficking “very much,” and tweeted in December 2018 that the “results will be incredible!”
Despite Trump’s views, it seems that he won’t be pushing drug-related executions in the United States for now. “I don’t know that our country is ready for that,” he said at the February 10 meeting. The president has made comments in the past that suggest otherwise, however. Axios reported, citing administration sources, that Trump apparently has expressed, since at least February 2018, that he’d “love to have a law to execute all drug dealers here in America.” In March 2019, he told a group of American law enforcement officials that “We’re wasting our time” if the US doesn’t make use of the death penalty for people who sell drugs.
Even if Trump refrains from trying to roll out such draconian punishments in the US, it doesn’t mean he himself has not had a hand in increasing executions for drug-law violations.
In fact, his administration took credit for China’s deadly crackdown on fentanyl. “The concrete action taken by China is a direct result of President Trump’s strong leadership on this issue, and the personal engagement by many members of Congress in communicating our entire government’s commitment to saving American lives,” said James Carrol, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, in November 2019, following the sentencing to death of a Chinese man for fentanyl manufacturing and trafficking. “China’s fentanyl trafficking and production prosecution is a positive step in following through on the pledge secured by President Trump.”
There have been some attempts by Asian nations to move away from the harshest policies. In October 2018, Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad vowed to abolish the death penalty for all offenses—with people with drug convictions comprising three-quarters (73 percent) of the total number of folks on death row. But he withdrew the proposal in March 2019.