To: Ms Ghada Waly, Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
3 December 2020,
Dear Ms. Waly,
Subject: Open letter on UNODC statement on International Human Rights Day
On 10 December 2020, we urge you to mark International Human Rights Day by calling on Member States to change drug policies and practices that violate human rights, and entrench exclusion and discrimination.
We are writing to you concerning the forthcoming International Human Rights Day, which will take place on 10 December 2020 amidst the devastating global COVID-19 pandemic that has compounded the exclusion and discrimination faced by people and communities affected by drug policies worldwide. As your first International Human Rights Day as Executive Director of UNODC, this occasion is an important opportunity to issue a strong statement that underlines UNODC’s commitment to rights-based drug policies, and calls for change in the laws and practices that threaten health and human rights.
For decades, punitive drug policies have driven widespread human rights violations, as has been amply documented by the UN.1 These include: the death penalty for drug offences; extrajudicial killings; arbitrary detention, often masquerading as ‘rehabilitation’; the denial of access to life-saving harm reduction services; widespread barriers to accessing controlled medicines for pain relief; the criminalisation of people who use drugs, subsistence farmers and others groups in situations of vulnerability; corporal punishment; and mass incarceration. Furthermore, draconian drug policies have disproportionately affected people who live in situations of exclusion on the basis gender, race, ethnicity, and economic status, amongst others.
In the past years, an increasing number of UN bodies have called on Member States to align their drug policies with human rights standards. The 2018 Chief Executives Board’s UN System Common Position on drug-related matters makes clear that ‘National drug control programmes (…) should be designed and implemented by States in accordance with their human rights obligations’, and commits all UN agencies, including UNODC, to support drug policies ‘that put people, health, and human rights at the centre’.2 In 2019, a number of UN agencies, including UNDP, OHCHR and WHO, published the ‘International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy’,3 which provide the first comprehensive international human rights standards on drug-related matters. IDPC called on UNODC to follow this trend in our Advocacy Note ‘Recommendations for the new UNODC Executive Director’,4 which is attached to IDPC’s correspondence to you dated 24 February 2020.
The 2020 International Human Rights Day, which will be held under the title ‘Recover better: Stand Up for Human Rights’, includes a thematic focus on the need ‘to apply human rights standards to tackle entrenched, systematic, and intergenerational inequalities, exclusion and discrimination’. As such, it presents a key opportunity for UNODC to highlight its commitment to the promotion of drug policies that respect, protect, and fulfil human rights, in line with the UN System Common Position.
In that regard, we urge you to issue a strong statement on International Human Rights Day, calling on states to change the drug laws, policies and practices that violate health and human rights. To be credible, such a statement should explicitly name the major human rights violations committed in the name of drug control, and urge member states to:
1. Abolish the death penalty in all circumstances. Imposing capital punishment for drug offences has been found to be contrary to international human rights law by the Human Rights Committee6, and the Human Rights Council.
2. Put an immediate end to extrajudicial killings committed in the name of drug control, as has been repeatedly called for by the Human Rights Council8 and UN human rights experts.
3. Permanently close compulsory drug detention centres, including those that masquerade as ‘rehabilitation’, and implement voluntary, evidence-informed, and rights-based health and social services, as recently called for by sixteen UN agencies, including UNODC.
4. Stress the urgent need to provide accessible, affordable, and adequately funded harm reduction services in community and closed settings, to fulfil the right to health and the right to life of people who use drugs, as demanded by several UN human rights bodies and experts. This is also central to UNODC’s core, funded role as lead UNAIDS co-sponsor regarding prisons and HIV amongst people who use drugs.
5. Take immediate measures to address prison overcrowding, as already recommended by UNODC and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, by promoting alternatives to incarceration, and ensuring proportionate sentencing for all drug offences, including by taking into account mitigating factors – in line with the basic principle that prisons should only be used as a last resort in all circumstances.
6. Ensure that people who use drugs are not subject to arbitrary detention, torture, or ill-treatment – whether in state custody or public or private drug services. While under detention, people with a drug dependence or other problems associated with their drug use must be offered evidence-based treatment, harm reduction and other drug services on a strictly voluntary basis.
7. Promote the end of all punishment for drug use, and drug possession and cultivation for personal use, as permitted within the three drug control conventions. Such policy shifts will help to end the stigma, criminalisation, and exclusion faced by people who use drugs, and to facilitate access to health and social services, as called for by the UN System Common Position, UNAIDS, and UN human rights bodies.
8. Make sure that drug policies incorporate a gender-sensitive perspective. This should be done by tailoring drug services to the specific needs of women, and by ensuring that criminal laws take into account the circumstances of women involved in drug offences, as most of them come from backgrounds of poverty, marginalisation, and oppression.
9. Clearly outline the ways in which UNODC will work to achieve these changes, and the measures being taken to ensure that human rights are effectively embedded as a core strand for all of the Office’s work.
As the lead UN agency in drug-related matters, UNODC has the responsibility to promote drug policies that respect, protect, and fulfil human rights, in a way that is consistent with the standards developed by the UN system, and in line with the commitments set in the UN System Common Position. A strong statement for your first International Human Rights Day as Executive Director would be an important and welcome step that signals UNODC’s unequivocal commitment to human rights.
We look forward to discussing these concerns and recommendations with you.