Located in the arboreous highlands, the Golden Triangle is the meeting point of the borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand at the junction of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States was the first to use the term “Golden Triangle” to describe this region, locally known as Sop Ruak. In addition to its beautiful scenery, this territory is known for being one of the world’s premier sources of illicit drugs. Favorable conditions, such as the turbulent political situation in the area and its geographical isolation, allow transnational organized crime syndicates to produce and distribute illicit drugs. Specifically, opium poppy (papaver somniferum) cultivation started in this area in the 16th – 17th centuries, reached its peak in the 20th century and declined in the last three decades.
This decline in the prime ingredient of heroin is due to the increasing production of more lucrative and highly addictive synthetic drugs, namely, methamphetamine. The profits made from illicit drug production and trafficking are reckoned to be in the tens of billions of U.S. dollars. It is the major financial support for the advanced crime syndicates in this area, which undermine peace and fuel corruption, conflict, and insecurity. Consequently, drug trafficking constitutes a non-traditional security threat to regional prosperity and safety and exacerbates the challenges related to human rights. This paper intends to discuss the illicit drug production and trafficking mechanism in the Golden Triangle and highlight human rights violations resulting from the enforcement of drug policies.
To begin with, this area is located between China and India – the two biggest suppliers of chemicals. This geographical factor contributes to the expansion of synthetic drug production. To clarify, crime syndicates need precursor chemicals to manufacture illicit drugs. For instance, heroin production depends on the seasonal harvest of opium poppies and acetic anhydride, a precursor chemical. On the other hand, synthetic drugs are produced in laboratories with the use of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. These precursors, in other words, base drugs, are also used to make a variety of products, ranging from medicine, cosmetics, and perfumes to plastics. Thus, drug traffickers can procure these chemicals from legitimate factories mainly located in China and India. Consequently, these countries put in place new regulatory frameworks that include administrative approval systems and licensing schemes to control the acquisition of precursors.
However, illicit drug cartels operating in the area are capable of overcoming this governmental barrier. In other words, they have the necessary competence to produce precursors by obtaining pre-precursors such as propionyl chloride, which has minor regulatory controls on its procurement. Next, crime syndicates transport illicit drugs through aerial and marine logistics networks to the rest of the world. Eventually, proceeds generated from the illicit drug trade are integrated into the legitimate financial system by laundering money, particularly, through casinos in the area. For example, in 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Zhao Wei, chairman of the Kings Romans Casino, for engaging in drug trafficking and money laundering among other criminal activities, operating from his casino. Notably, the consequences of illicit drug production and trafficking are not limited to its negative impacts on the economy and financial sector.
There are also damages to public health, environmental degradation, and human rights violations. To address this issue, governments in the region, together with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and other non-governmental organizations, have implemented multi-pronged strategies. As an illustration, the Mekong Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Drug Control is one of the steps taken in this direction. However, the enforcement of drug policies can also result in violations of human rights, such as rights to life, the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (includes access to controlled substances as medicines, harm reduction services, and drug dependence treatment on a voluntary basis), an adequate standard of living (includes the right to food, clothing, and housing), and social security.
Especially, the application of the death penalty for drug offenses violates international law. For instance, Thailand applies the death penalty for drug trafficking, as a result of which, a few hundred people have been executed. Furthermore, drug offenders often face disproportionate sentencing and over-incarceration, which is associated with being prisoned in poor conditions and being denied harm reduction services. Moreover, forced eradication of opium poppy crops further exacerbates the living conditions of subsistence farmers who engage in the cultivation to escape from poverty and food insecurity. Additionally, governmental controls on the acquisition of precursors also limit the accessibility of essential medicines for pain relief.
On the other hand, there have been noteworthy developments in the international drug policy framework that emphasize rights-based action on drug policies. Particularly, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been encouraging countries to shape their approaches to illicit drug economies in the light of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, in 2019, the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy was published as part of the new global strategy on drugs. Although the elimination of illicit drug economies remains a major challenge, this is a milestone in the progress towards the protection of human rights.