The UK's decision to send millions of pounds in aid to Vietnam has been called into question after the country confirmed that it is to execute 30 heroin smugglers.
Since Vietnam said in January that it will execute 21 men and nine women, human rights groups have urged governments around the world to ensure aid is not used to help the country arrest drug traffickers, given that they can face the death penalty.
No country is more vocal than the UK in opposing the death penalty, but there are concerns that by funding counter-narcotics programmes, it is indirectly supporting execution of smugglers.
There was outrage two years ago when the Observer reported on the UK's role in funding Iran's counter-narcotics programme, which has seen thousands of drug traffickers arrested and hundreds executed.
Now questions are being asked about the UK's donations to Vietnam made via the UN, which funds initiatives to combat the country's long-standing heroin smuggling problem. Pressure groups fear the use of capital punishment in Vietnam is arbitrary and that death sentences are often passed when the accused has had inadequate legal representation. Many of those executed are "mules" coerced into smuggling by gangs.
Since 2008, the Department for International Development has contributed $10m to the country via a $90m programme called One UN Fund II. Much of the money paid into the fund is unallocated, allowing Vietnamese authorities to decide how it is spent.
Among the agencies receiving the One Fund aid money is UNODC, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which has been allocated around $4m for 2012-17. UNODC says a key measure of whether the funding has had any impact will be seen in "the number of drug traffickers arrested, prosecuted and convicted".
In a letter to the UN last week, three charities said: "This strategy places UNODC's work in direct connection to the application of the death penalty."Reprieve, Harm Reduction International (HRI) and World Coalition Against the Death Penalty – . "The UNODC strategy, while risky from a human rights perspective, fails to include any international human rights law within its legal framework. It contains no human rights risk assessment. This again raises the concern that UN programmes are assisting in operations that lead to the death penalty for those prosecuted, with no accountability mechanisms in place to ensure this is prevented and to react decisively when it occurs."
The charities stressed that they believed foreign aid was essential for helping countries such as Vietnam develop. However, they said it should not been funnelled into tackling drug smuggling.
"The UN seeks unrestricted funding for its work in Vietnam, and governments trust them with it," said Damon Barrett, HRI's deputy director. "Mostly this is a good idea. But the drug enforcement component is far too close to human rights abuses and UNODC has shown an unwillingness to deal with that."
The human rights groups have demanded to know what measures have been put in place to "ensure that UN drug enforcement assistance in Vietnam does not assist in the arrests of those that will later face the death penalty", and whether the organisation will "agree to a freeze on drug enforcement assistance until such time as a moratorium on executions is in place."
There is considerable secrecy around the death penalty in Vietnam. However, the Vietnamese government admitted in a 2003 submission to the UN Human Rights Committee that "over the last years, the death penalty has been mostly given to persons engaged in drug trafficking".