Human rights and drug control: an irreconcilable contradiction?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Human-Rights-DayThis week both the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna and the UN General Assembly 3rd Committee in New York discuss new drug control resolutions related to upcoming reviews of global drug policy. The high-level CND review in March 2014 and the Special Session of the General Assembly (UNGASS) on drugs in 2016 provide opportunities to change course and to ensure drug policy fully respects human rights.

Over the past decades, repression has been implemented as the main strategy to address drugs-related problems. Both nationally and internationally, most of the resources have been spent on combating the illicit market. As with responses to other perceived ‘threats’, such as terrorism, this has resulted in the erosion of civil liberties and innumerable human rights abuses worldwide. States have carried out military operations against small farmers of coca, opium and cannabis, practiced chemical spraying of drug linked crops, or forced people off their land.

Some countries practice the death penalty for those who break the law relating to drugs. In the 2012 overview report on the death penalty for drug offences Harm Reduction International (HRI) has identified 33 states and territories as retaining capital punishment for drug offences in law. Fewer use it – and fewer still carry out executions - but among them many hundreds are put to death. Indeed, the number of states prescribing the death penalty for drug offences increased after the adoption of the 1988 drug trafficking conventions.

It is estimated that over 10 million people are currently incarcerated worldwide; a large number of these people having been convicted of drug-related crimes. In Europe and Central Asia one in four women in prison are there for non-violent drug offences. In Southeast Asia and China hundreds of thousands of people are detained for months and sometimes years, in compulsory drug detention centres to be “treated” for their drug use. In many of these centres no medical care is available. Forced labour, physical and sexual violence are part of the “treatment” offered. The detainees do not have access to due process or judicial review. In Latin America the percentage of people in prison for drug offenses is even higher, as the TNI/WOLA report on drug laws and prisons in Latin America shows, consumers and low-level offenders fill the overcrowded prisons with devastating results.

This leads to a criminal justice system where minor drug offenders sometimes receive tougher penalties than rapists, kidnappers or murderers. Long prison sentences for drug offenders causes prison overcrowding in many countries, incapacitates the criminal justice system, and puts prisoners at higher risk of being infected by HIV, hepatitis C, tuberculosis, etc. Another tragic consequence of the current international drug control regime is the very low accessibility of essential medicines such as morphine and methadone around the globe.

The main aim of the UN drug conventions “to protect the health and welfare of mankind” is in no way contrary to the international human rights, but at the same time many human rights breaches happen in the name of drug law enforcement. Over the years policy innovation has shown that an effective, evidence-based approach can contribute to the protection of human rights while at the same time addressing the drug-related harm.

What is needed is a shift in targets: it does not help to aim for high arrest and seizure rates; we know these do not have any impact on the drugs market. The illegal market will always be one step ahead of enforcement. Instead, we should aim to reduce the harm of drug use to the individual user and the community; setting targets for an increase in the accessibility of services; the lowering of the overdose rate and the infection rates of blood-borne diseases; and the reduction of drug-related violence.

An integrated, balanced approach based on the principle of harm reduction will help to include human rights in drug policy. In some regions it will require political courage to choose this approach. It is also very important that the law enforcement and justice system is in support of the new approach, to make sure penalties are proportionate and police officers are not hampering treatment and harm-reduction services.

TNI's position on drugs policy is straightforward: drug control should respect human rights. We believe in the rights of farmers caught in the illicit economy to live a life in dignity. We favour the decriminalisation of use, possession for personal use and minor trafficking offences. We defend harm-reduction approaches and advocate differentiation among substances on the basis of health concerns. We defend the principle of proportionality: a basic principle that should be obvious to all but got lost in the process of the escalation of the war on drugs.

Everyone involved in the illicit drugs market, farmers, traders and users alike, are fully protected by human rights. Any drug control measure that violates their basic human rights is illegitimate. Let’s hope the UN uses the opportunities the CND review in March 2014 and the Special Session of the General Assembly (UNGASS) on drugs in 2016 provide to ensure drug policy fully respects human rights.

For more information on human rights and drug policy look at our new primer.

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