Wednesday, 20 September 2023 (Geneva, Switzerland) — In a historical report released today, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights denounced the failure of punitive drug policies and the global ‘war on drugs’, and called for a new approach based on health and human rights, including through the legal regulation of drugs. To implement the recommendations laid down by the High Commissioner, we call on the international community to reform and rebalance the global drug control regime, and national drug laws and policies.
For decades, the unrealistic goal of achieving a ‘drug-free society’ has driven the international community to approach drugs with prohibition, criminalisation and harsh punishment. Following the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) in 2016, there has been growing emphasis at the UN on the health, human rights, and development dimensions of drugs and drug policy. But efforts to materialise these commitments have been insufficient. The High Commissioner for Human Rights has now taken a bold step forward with the unequivocal recognition that punitive drug policies drive widespread human rights violations and fuel discrimination.
With this report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is the first UN agency to call for the responsible regulation of drugs as a pragmatic measure to protect public health and the human rights of all. This comes at a time when over 250 million people already live in jurisdictions where legal cannabis markets are a reality, and countries such as Colombia and Germany are announcing similar plans. In addition, Bolivia has just triggered the process to review the international scheduling and control of the coca leaf, as it was subject to international control in 1961 on the basis of outdated and racist prejudices.
The new report also systematises the growing body of recommendations on drug policy provided by UN human rights experts. As such, it serves as a blueprint to design responses based on the respect of public health and human rights. Some of the most important findings include:
- Recognising harm reduction as a central element of the right to health
- Identifying the militarisation of drug control as a driver of state violence
- Calling for the abolition of the death penalty for drug offences
- Recognising the contribution of disproportionate drug laws to global mass incarceration
- Documenting the use of drug policies to target marginalised groups such as Indigenous Peoples, people of African descent, and women.
- Recognising the disproportionate negative effects of prohibition and criminalisation on populations caught in humanitarian crises.
Transforming the global punitive approach to drugs requires changes in the foundational norms and institutions of the international drug control regime, which have been historically centred on prohibition and criminalisation. This includes the reform of the UN drug control conventions and the rebalancing of UN drug control bodies, such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which remain reticent to engage with countries to promote the alternative drug policies at the centre of the High Commissioner’s proposal, including the decriminalisation of drug use and related activities and the need to increase equitable access to harm reduction services, both of which are also central to the UN System Common Position on drugs.
Considering the historical importance of the High Commissioner’s report, we collectively provide the following recommendations:
- We urge Member States to use the upcoming mid-term review of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration on drugs to rebalance the global approach to drugs by enshrining the protection of human rights, public health, and the principles of equality and non-discrimination as essential objectives of the global drug control system, and by adding an item on the protection of human rights in the agenda of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs.
- We call on the international community to meaningfully involve civil society organisations and populations directly affected by the ‘war on drugs’, including key populations such as people who use drugs, and people involved in illicit economies, in every stage of drug policy decision-making, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
- We urge Member States to initiate a review of the UN drug conventions to allow for a human rights-based approach to legal regulation and repeal the provisions that mandate the abolition of traditional uses of internationally controlled plants and substances.
- We call on the Human Rights Council to create a mechanism for periodic reporting and development of recommendations on the alignment of human rights with drug policy. This should be through either a periodic mandate for the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report on the human rights impacts of drug policy or the creation of an investigative body or special mandate on drug policy.
- We welcome the growing body of recommendations by UN human rights mechanisms with regards to the human rights implications of drug policies. We encourage all human rights mechanisms to follow the path opened by the High Commissioner by focusing on how punitive drug policies, including the global drug control regime, can become obstacles in themselves for the full enjoyment of human rights.
- We call on drug control bodies, including the UNODC and the INCB, to integrate the human rights dimension of drug policy in their workplans in a systematic way, to ensure this is reflected in their yearly reports, and to mainstream the findings and standards laid down by the High Commissioner in their cooperation with Member States.
- We call on the UNODC, Member States, and national drug control bodies to refrain from supporting and funding punitive responses to drugs, and ensure that any financial and technical assistance provided to third countries for drug law enforcement operations does not contribute, or carries a real risk of contributing, to the commission of human rights violations.
- We call on UN agencies and the international community actors in health and protection services to integrate harm reduction services within the humanitarian response framework.
- We urge UN agencies with relevant mandates to follow the example of the High Commissioner for Human Rights by ending the taboo on the responsible regulation of drugs, and to provide evidence, recommendations, and international standards on legally regulated markets aligned with the UN values of promoting health, human rights, and development.