Harm reduction, racial justice, Indigenous Peoples rights: UN Human Rights Council breaks new ground on drug policy

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Harm reduction, racial justice, Indigenous Peoples rights: UN Human Rights Council breaks new ground on drug policy

6 April 2023

History was made this week at the UN. The Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted the most ambitious and progressive resolution on drug policy to date, titled ‘Contribution of the Human Rights Council with regard to the human rights implications of drug policy’. While the environment at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna has become increasingly fractious and moribund, this resolution illustrates that progress on drug policy can be made at the UN outside of the Vienna setting. This follows on the heels of the latest ‘omnibus resolution’ that was adopted by a vote at the General Assembly last December, and which also contained important progress on human rights.

There are three clear substantive wins in this Human Rights Council resolution (and more are elaborated in our advocacy note):

  • One long-standing thorny issue for political debates on drugs at the UN has been regarding the term harm reduction – a non-judgemental and pragmatic approach that seeks to reduce the harms associated with drug use without necessarily seeking to reduce or stop drug use itself. One of the clearest examples of harm reduction is to provide sterile needles and syringes to people who inject drugs to reduce the spread of blood borne viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C. The term ‘harm reduction’ has never appeared in a politically negotiated UN resolution on drug policy – until now. Several member states, led by Russia, sought an amendment to the text to remove the term but this was rejected by vote. The gain here is threefold: firstly, it is the first time that the term is included outside the context of HIV/AIDS (the term has appeared in HIV political declarations); secondly, it is the first time that the term is mentioned within the framework of the right to health, alongside other health responses, and thirdly, support for harm reduction is not qualified as being subject to national legislation.
  • The global protests in 2020 led by Black Lives Matter in the USA resulted in a resolution at the Human Rights Council that addressed systemic racism and human rights abuses by law enforcement agencies against Africans and people of African descent. The extent to which these violations have been driven by drug control objectives cannot be overstated and has brought the racial justice agenda to the fore of drug policy debates in recent years. This week’s resolution contains the strongest commitment to date on addressing racial discrimination in drug policy and programmes. In addition, the resolution makes a clear reference to the discriminatory practice of ‘stop and search’ (for example, see this report on the UK) by urging governments to reform ‘discriminatory practices in the arrest and detention of members of vulnerable and marginalized groups’.
  • The deeply racist roots of the UN drug control system has been increasingly exposed and must continue to be uprooted. A central concern in this regard is the continued violation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their ancestral practices and traditional medicines. In Vienna, it has been impossible to clearly reaffirm these rights, including this year as member states negotiated a resolution focusing on alternative development, the environment and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. In contrast, the Human Rights Council resolution reaffirms the right to traditional medicines and health practices for Indigenous Peoples. This is a very timely development given that Bolivia recently announced at the CND that they will initiate a critical review of the coca leaf by the World Health Organisation to reverse “six decades of discrimination and colonization”.

While the key substantive gains are of paramount importance, the central operational objective of this resolution is to give a mandate to the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) to produce a report on the human rights impacts of drug policy as a contribution to the upcoming mid-term review of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration that will take place in Vienna at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March 2024. The 2024 mid-term review is the next key moment for the international community to take stock of progress made in international drug policy and pave the way forward for the next five years. Human rights considerations must be front and centre of this review process and this resolution will be instrumental in that regard, especially given that how politically challenging it has been centre the human rights arguments at the CND, and many members states still resist the participation of the UN human rights actors in that setting. The report will also disseminated and discussed at a Human Rights Council intersessional panel discussion which will continue to drive momentum on this nexus in Geneva.

Naturally the difficult negotiations on this resolution inevitably led various concessions being made along the way. For example, the original ambition of the resolution was to create a ‘standing mandate’ for OHCHR to produce periodic reports on the human rights impacts of drug policy. Unfortunately, this was watered down to only one report as a contribution to the mid-term review. Other areas of regression are two amendments tabled respectively by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The first concerns the primacy of state sovereignty in international law, and the other re-introduces the goal of achieving a ‘society free of drug abuse’. Removing this phrase was one of the key achievements of the latest ‘omnibus resolution’ in New York and the efforts to keep it out of this resolution ultimately failed. However, the vote on the amendment revealed a divided Council, with 25 votes in favour of the amendment, 18 against, and 4 abstentions.

Nonetheless, overall, the gains in this document outweigh the losses, and getting this regressive language back into the text is a pyrrhic victory for governments that favour more punitive approaches as the steps forward taken in this resolution – especially on ‘harm reduction’ – are unprecedented.

This resolution reflects, and highlights, the continuing convergence between drug policy and human rights at the UN. This trend has continued to gain pace and is instrumental in bringing further fracture to the long-revered but now tattered consensus on drugs at the CND in Vienna. UN policy progress outside of Vienna will create much needed pressure on the CND – either to start catching up with the reality that prohibition is a devastating failure, or to continue to fracture and descend into inevitable irrelevance.